More content is not the answer

The wails and groans of a giant institution attempting to alter its course are enough to send shivers down the spine of a fearless man. Like those submarine movies, where bolts pop and pipes burst on a deep dive to escape the enemy, television stations are struggling with the necessary pain of reinvention. I’ve been preaching this stuff for so long that I ought to be immune from the noise of the silent screams, but I’m not. It hurts to stand by as friends and colleagues flop around on life’s fishing dock, knowing that only some will make it back into the safety of the water.

It was painful, for example, to read Phil Rosenthal’s account in the Chicago Tribune of WMAQ-TV’s mandate for change, especially the comments. The title of my book is “Reinventing Local Media,” so I certainly support the efforts of the station, but I don’t envy station manager Frank Whittaker, the guy responsible for implementing the changes.

It’s typical old media reactive stuff. Old specialization jobs are giving way to hybrids, where people are required to multi-task and embrace new skills. This is a necessary path, but one that’s fraught with danger absent an executable strategy for what to do with a versatile staff. Mr. Whittaker notes that the goal is more content, something that is more a means than an end.

“We haven’t got the numbers yet, so I can’t tell you if it matches up exactly or not. But the real reason is to take the resources we have and try to produce more content in more platforms than we’re doing right now, and more platforms also means that hopefully we’ll start making more revenue.

“The big picture is we’re trying to become a newsroom that provides content for a number of different platforms, including the growth areas, which could be Web, could be mobile … a lot of different places where our content may play now or may play someday,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to grow as our traditional business stays flat or declines or whatever happens in the future.”

I don’t want to pick on WMAQ, but the notion that more content for more platforms is the solution to revenue problems is the result of a failure to grasp the realities of the disruption that those platforms represent. When ad-supported content is your business model, then it logically follows that more content will produce more revenue, but this is not the way things work in the counterintuitive world of Media 2.0. The reality, as my friend Gordon Borrell points out, is that the deer now have guns; anybody can be a media company that produces content, even the people formerly known as the advertisers. What do you do when the deer have guns? You get into the ammunition business. This is the real reinvention of local media.

Remember that advertising is our business, not content. We need to be spending more time, energy and resources in local advertising than in shuffling the deck to produce more content. The Media 2.0 game is about enabling commerce in our communities, not multi-platform distribution of scarce content. Scarcity is a trap in a world of abundance.

So my advice to WMAQ-TV is the same advice I give to clients. Strip away the specialist mentality of the workforce, because the economics of media don’t support it anymore (ASIDE: this includes on-air people). Do the multi-platform thing. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is your revenue salvation. Identify the local web. Organize it. Put ads all over it. In other words, be Google in your market.


  1. Right again, King Friday. (this only works if you watched Mr. Rogers.)

    In an information rich, attention scarce economy, the value is in less content. The tricky part is knowing which less content has to be delivered in what form to what people. And most important, when is the right TIME to make it available. Ah…the industrial mass market mindset is so hard to shake off. We’re watching how that worked out for big Auto.

  2. The local media have so far to go. I just hope that this terrible economic climate (and the resulting acceleration of the erosion of the core) may spur real innovation and change.

  3. While I agree that the WMAQ approach is misguided, I don’t think becoming Google is a viable or particularly safe investment, given that Google is out there waiting to undercut anyone with ad inventory.

    You’re assuming that the value of content is static, that there is one kind of content that competes for attention. In fact, there is more variability in content quality and usefulness (general interest publication is dead). Less crap, better reporting, greater context and customer service (because publishing is no longer a “hit send and forget” business) are key to engaging people’s attention. This isn’t to say professionals have to do the work, just that quality is still important.

    Then, you can sell advertising.

    Advertising is the way revenue is created, but it doesn’t in and of itself provide the people reading/watching any value. If we’re going to reinvent the press, it has to begin in content and process for collecting, vetting and delivering content to the right people at the right time. Foregoing that responsibility for quality and timeliness will just choke off the opportunity to sell ads.

  4. Mitch,

    I mostly agree with your comment but we part ways with “but (advertising) doesn’t in and of itself provide the people reading/watching any value.” The fact is that at least back in the day Wednesday was Supermarket shopping day, lots of people bought the paper for the advertising. Also the shoppers which are all advertising seem to be pretty successful.

    I think the right right distinction is between Brand advertising “I’m so great because..blablablabla.” and local advertising. Think Sears Roebuck Catalog, 1905.

  5. @Mitch. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Your point makes a huge assumption that I haven’t supported for years, namely that scarcity is a viable business model in the world of news and information. You use words like “quality” and “usefulness” to create scarcity, which is then sold to advertisers who want the audience. I’m sorry, but this is a strategy in decay.

    Nothing I write is all-or-nothing, so of course I believe that quality is important. I merely make the case that quality or useful content alone won’t sustain a growth business.

    Growth for advertising lies beyond the walls of our scarcity. Google has figured that out, and I refuse to turn over local advertising to them without a fight.

  6. In an information abundant society, the scarce resource is Time. it has become literally true that Less is More, and More is Less … more or less.…

  7. I hesitate to disagree with someone who is so well respected in local news circles, but you’re completely wrong on this one, Terry.

    The “be the Google of your local DMA” arguement is one that I’ve been hearing for at least 3 or 4 years. And it misses the point as much now as it did then.

    It assumes that it’s possible to create a local media equivalent to Google ads/search, and that’s just not possible. Building out a local (or even regional) ad network is nearly impossible, and even if successful, it’s tough to carve out enough of a market share to develop the financial efficiencies Google has built with its domination of search.

    One thing local media does need to do is to wrestle control of more of its ad inventory back from third parties. It’s tough to find a local news site that doesn’t include multiple instance of Google Ads, plus those slick click-through ad widgets from companies such as Internet Broadcasting’s “Links We Like” or ARA Lifestyles. Rather than just giving away traffic for a couple of pennies, it makes more sense to use that space for local businessess, who can be sold the text ads with an automated system.

    Mitch has a point that content is important, but he and I probably differ a bit on why. I think he sees quality content as a traffic draw (and ultimately a revenue builder). I think content is important, but mostly as a way of building value and brand for the site. Quality is great, but so is providing the info when needed.

    Part of the problem with this discussion is that “local” means something entirely different online. Local online isn’t defined by geography, it’s defined by relationships. The average reader may be interested in local news, but only follows a far-away NFL team. They care about their kids school, but also have longtime friends from college. It’s tough for a web site that is built around geography to have the same resonance. You can argue that a site like Facebook is the ultimate local web site, because it enables visitors to build the local version of their life that exists only in their heads.

    Awhile ago, I pitched an idea internally to my former employer about building a local media site like that. One that could begin with existing local content, plus user-generated stuff (for instance, info on my kids soccer team), as well as every national and international source possible. Everything built with widgets and as customizable as possible for the user.

    I still think that’s where local media will end up looking like in a few years. I appreciate NBC’s efforts to revamp their O&O operations. As a guy who was the managing editor of one of their web sites several years back, I know how far they’ve come. But ultimately, I think that while change is good, they might have misjudged some of the changes they needed to make.

  8. Rick -
    You hit all the right points. I particularly like the idea that community is defined by relationships as much and sometimes more than geography is well taken. As a Print evangelist, I just wanted to Print in the mix.

    My take is that local advertising needs a very easy way to buy ads. Start with face to face interactions with a differently incented sales force. Then move them, at the speed that is appropriate for them, to a web interface. The offering is a Print ad + a web ad.

    Additional services could be sold as appropriate. One value add is to offer to turn the business card into a Print ad. For some local businesses this could evolve towards a complete marketing campaign — print ads, web ads, collateral, signage. Perhaps it could even evolve to analytics and business strategy and/or mentoring.

    One idea I’ve been trying out is networking a newspaper ad sales force with a commercial print sales force. Admittedly the culture shift is huge. But commercial printers are hurting and ready for most new opportunities.

    I would appreciate any feedback on this idea from folks who are in the game. I’m just a semi-retired blogger so I’m not sure if I am just drinking my own kool-aid or whether this is something that might work on the ground.

  9. @Rick. Good to hear from you and thanks for the input. Always nice to be challenged in such a thoughtful way.

    Look, Google’s mission statement is “To organize the world’s information and make it easily accessible and useful.” How is that not a good mission statement for local media? The problem is that nobody has identified or defined the Local Web, which is a market-by-market task that’s easily accomplished with the help of, well, Google. Once defined, that becomes “the market.”

    I’m not saying beat Google at search. I’ve tried that. Twice. It doesn’t work (although it doesn’t suck either). I’m saying Google has the right approach to advertising, and that is to recognize that the Web itself is a much better platform than any portal.

    I have a big auto dealer client, and we’re doing exactly this in one of their markets. They are doing nothing that a local media company couldn’t do (and better), and they’re gaining significant traction in the market. They advertise all over the place and find that media company sites aren’t always the best spots in town. If an automobile dealer can do this through research and serving its own ads, then why is it not a smart business proposition for a local media company? Hell, he gets better click-throughs from Facebook than he does the local newspaper site and the cost is pennies by comparison.

    As an old news horse, I appreciate the value of “content,” but it is not the answer in the disintermediated world of the Web. In terms of revenue to sustain any form of content “mission,” that will have to come from beyond the walls of our own sites.

  10. @ Terry,

    Just curious, is there a Print component, either ads, collateral, posters or billboards to the marketing campaign?

  11. Terry–Thanks for your response.

    It’s true, local media outlets aren’t always the best place to advertise, and most local media sites would benefit from having someone who could say to a client. “This is what works on our site. Here are some other things to consider, and let us help you make all this happen.” Yes, it’s moving to almost an ad agency model, but what better place for a client to find a local sales staff knowledable about the online world than a local online media site?

    Sadly, too many local media sites are still concentrating on the low hanging fruit. Their primary online sales are still to clients from the legacy business (many times as some sort of “value-added” buy). And when they do sell online ads, they don’t make the effort to find the best fit for the advertiser. That’s why the client churn rates on so many local media sites is such an insanely hugh number.

    I recently interviewed for a job at a local TV station, and I was told that they were really unhappy with the amount of money being generated by their web site. But they only had one person tasked with selling online, and he was the junior person on the sales staff. There was no way for a local client to buy an ad without going through a process that seemed better suited to an episode of “Mad Men” than a 21st century business. And yet, they blame the revenue problem on the fickleness of the Internet.

    Sigh. It’s hard not to get discouraged by this stuff.


  1. […] This is where Terry Heaton preaches the gospel. He basically says that content is not the answer. […]

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