Print Media: Facing a Digital Future or Extinction

shutterstock_116212888In an early episode of “House of Cards,” the new Netflix TV series about Washington’s political underbelly, the editor of the fictional Washington Herald newspaper gets fired because he’s stuck in a pre-internet era, an era without instant news updates or constant online chatter.

He wants things to remain as they’ve always been. And he’s not happy when a rising young reporter gets lots of media attention for her scoops and then turns down his offer to be the paper’s primary Capitol Hill reporter, in part, because she wants to write a political blog, a medium he sees as being beyond contempt.

This episode shows the tough decisions faced every day by the print media: Should they maintain their ostrich stance, ignoring changes that are battering their industry, making obsolete their old business models, and rapidly destroying their individual companies? Or should they embrace online media with their new rules and their seeming disregard of traditional ethics, standards, and ways of doing business?

While the Washington Herald is fictional, two long-term print newspapers—Daily Variety and the Financial Times, each publishing a daily edition for more than a century—are real. Both publications have been dealing with the problems caused by online competition, and each has taken a different approach to dealing with them, as news articles pointed out last month.

The first sentence of a recent New York Times article on Daily Variety, which has been a leader in covering the entertainment industry for 108 years, makes clear that this newspaper’s approach didn’t work. The sentence was short, to the point, and quite clear: “Daily Variety is dead.” And so it is, along with its companion magazine, Weekly Variety.

This newspaper that had printed stories each day—once considered a fast distribution of news—could no longer compete against digital outlets that posted and updated stories throughout the day. Its number of subscribers had dropped to about 25,000, and it was losing staff members. Some freelance writers went months without being paid for their stories.

Apparently, the only concession Daily Variety made toward the changing digital world of journalism was to start a website years ago. But that site was surrounded by a pay wall—a barrier that readers of few publications in 2009 were willing to cross. The Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 2.14.06 PMwebsite, which will remain active, is now offering readers free access to its information.

The Financial Times, a 125-year-old London newspaper covering the financial market, has taken a different approach to competition. Without giving up on its print publication, it has embraced an online future.

As a result, it has done much better than Daily Variety and, in fact, better than many print newspapers facing digital disruption. In February, The New York Times said that although the Financial Times print editions are fading, the publication “has figured out how to make significant money from new outlets, without straying from its original purpose.”

Now, the online publication has more than 300,000 subscribers, slightly more than those who get the printed edition. That’s also more than triple the number of online subscribers in 2007, when the Financial Times switched from a pay wall to a metered approach, giving online readers a number of free articles before charging them. About one-fourth of its digital subscribers are on mobile devices—which, many experts believe, hold the future of online communications. In its continuing effort to strengthen its digital offering and subscribers, the publication has just introduced its weekend mobile app.

The Financial Times sees its future as “serving a digital platform first and a newspaper second,” according to its editor. Nevertheless, it has no near-term plans to discontinue the print edition. Although print is being streamlined, it remains an important part of the Financial Times.

Apparently, the Financial Times learned some time ago that it’s less important whether its news is delivered in print or online, as long it’s accurate and timely, and its quality is beyond reproach. And it learned that its future—like that of countless newspapers across the country—depends on learning how to outsmart competitors, playing under new rules in an unfamiliar field, while continuing to play its own game.

This is a lesson the old editor on “House of Cards” and those of Daily Variety never learned.

Photo: Shutterstock/Slavoljub Pantelic         

03/02/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are five notable communications stories from the week ending March 2, 2013.

My Secrets: How I Became a Prolific Writer and Learned to Get Beyond School Essays by Vivek Wadhwa, on the LinkedIn blog, February 25.

Wadhwa, a book author and writer for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications, shows that you don’t have to be a journalist or love English grammar to be a successful writer. He taught himself to write, taking 40 hours to complete his first BusinessWeek article. He now turns out a piece in two to four hours.

He considers these to be keys to writing: “to speak fearlessly from the heart, get to the point immediately, keep the message simple and focused, and use the fewest words you can.”

19 Things Successful People Do on Social Mediaby TJ McCue, on Forbes website, February 26.

McCue offers some helpful tips here. Among them: “They publish more quality, not just quantity” and “They are genuine.”

A Revolutionary Marketing Strategy: Answer Customers’ Questions by Mark Cohen, in The New York Times, February 27.

Cohen writes about the new, highly successful marketing campaign undertaken by River Pools and Spas, a firm that installs fiberglass pools. The campaign, now at about one-tenth the cost of the company’s previous advertising budget of $250,000, consists mostly of blog posts that answer customer questions. One post has led directly to sales of at least $1.7 million.

This article provides lessons that other small companies might want to consider.

The Anti-Blog Post to Writing Better Blog Posts, a post by Mars Dorian on the {Grow} blog, February 27.

Dorian’s post takes a contrarian look at blog posts and questions the value of just echoing what others write. He suggests that before you start writing, you ask yourself these questions: “Are you creating an original piece of work, or are you merely soaking up the sound waves from the echo chamber?”

Too many bloggers, he suggests, are reading each other’s posts, mashing the information together, and slamming “out another samey samey blog post.” To avoid this routine, he offers five “anti-guidelines” for crafting original, compelling content. One guideline: “Allow your personal truth to shine through.”

Five Secrets Behind Effective Long-Form Content by Jennifer Kane, on the SteamFeed website, March 2.

In this post, Kane, a marketing/communications strategist, points to a fact often overlooked: Long-form content on the Web is not dead or dying, although it may seem that way because so much of it is “ weak and boring” and, therefore, not read. She adds that “in-depth content must adhere to a different set of rules to be seen and consumed.”

Kane’s “secrets” make up some of these rules and provide a good starting point for anyone wanting to develop better long-form content for the Web. These tips do not focus on how to write a better document or its component parts (headlines, sentences, paragraphs, etc.) but rather on how to make the content more presentable on the screen and, therefore, more easily and enjoyably read.

If you are interested in writing long-form content, you will want to read this post. I found her “secrets”—including the unannounced sixth one that you can find in the last paragraph—to be accurate and helpful.

02/23/2013 Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are five notable communications stories from the week ending February 22, 2013.

“Tech Predictions for 2013: It’s All about Mobile” by Claire Cain Miller, in The New York Times, February 18.

In this post, Miller discusses some of the findings from the recent ComScore report on Web and mobile usage in 2012 and expectations for this year. The report, she says, “shows that the effects of a movement toward mobile are everywhere, from shopping to media to search” and that “businesses will have to scramble to stay ahead of consumers’ changing behavior.”

She shares a few of the “interesting tidbits” from the 48-page report, beginning with the observation that “The mobile transition is happening astonishingly quickly.”

“The Dirty Secret about Online Content and Shrinking Attention Spans” by Eric Kokonas, on Ragan’s PR Daily, February 20.

In this thought-provoking post, Kokonas provides more details than are usually given to why our attention span is getting shorter and shorter as we become consumed with Twitter, Facebook, and other online media. And he turns on its head the argument that online content “sucks” (to use his word) because of the shortened attention span.

Kokonas says, for example, “The problem is that digital media is designed to be clicked, consumed, and spread as quickly as possible.” Then he adds, “The goal for digital content is not to produce well-written, thought-provoking articles and videos, but to create content that can be spread quickly and easily” because when someone takes the time to read, ad dollars are not generated.

He also points to evidence of a growing demand for better content and to examples of excellent long-form content being posted regularly on a number of websites.

“Fortune Journalist Cuts to the Core of Storytelling in Business,” a blog post by Lou Hoffman, on Ishmael’s Corner, February 21.

In this post, Hoffman, includes a short video in which Pattie Sellers, senior editor at large for Fortune magazine, discusses storytelling and its importance to entrepreneurs. He provides a graph explaining Sellers’ description of what she thinks the best stories must contain.

Key among these elements is failure. “If failure isn’t part of the story, I’m not that interested,” Sellers says in this informative video.

“Bookish Aims to Grow Book Market,” by Brittaney Kiefer, on PRWeek, February 21.

Kiefer discusses the newly launched Bookish, a book review and retail website, and its goal to connect readers with books and authors and to expand the book market.

Besides recommending books, the site provides author interviews and videos, as well as book reviews and reading lists. “We’ve tried to create more depth of content and information relating to books and authors than you might get in most places online, as well as bring in the independent expert point of view,” Keifer quotes Bookish’s CEO in this post.

“Images for Wine in Down-to-Earth Designs” by Julia Flynn Siler, in The Wall Street Journal, February 23.

Whether we work in PR, advertising, design or any other endeavor that helps our companies or clients better market their products, each of us must rely on his or her own creativity to execute the best work possible. And we each must address this creativity with an individual approach.

In this article about creativity, Siler discusses the way Susan Pate, a wine-label designer, gets ideas for her designs.

Pate starts, says Siler, by examining the “environment in which the wine is produced, including soil, topography and climate.” Her research helps her choose appropriate color palettes and often leads to images based on found objects, such as twigs or vines.

This approach has worked very well for her. For many years now, she has designed labels—as well as helped name wines and select the shape, type of class, and color for wine bottles—for estates and celebrity winemakers in the United States, Italy, and France.

She prefers to work with clients who are passionate about their wines, people who are not too literal-minded and will appreciate her evocative images.

Taking a Hike Plaque and Keeping up with the Jones’

Screen Shot 2013-01-22 at 5.46.23 PMAs it does occasionally, The New York Times in a recent article asked twenty questions about advertising, the media, and popular culture. Here are two questions about ads in 2012 that caught my attention:

  • Do any of the copywriters who crafted the ads for the Crest Pro-Health Clinical Line of oral-care products sold by Procter & Gamble realize that the way they punctuated the headlines, which read “Take a hike plaque, and don’t hurry back,” suggests that consumers ought to get their hands on a “hike plaque,” whatever the heck that might be?

  • Will any English teachers who wear the Jones New York clothing sold by the Jones Group scold the copywriters who came up with the headline “Keeping up with the Jones’ ” for the brand’s ads?

Clearly, the Crest ad is missing an important comma after “hike,” a comma necessitated by the fact that the sentence is addressing plaque, telling it to take a hike. The comma is necessary here just as it would be in a sentence such as, “Go to the office, Bob.” Since this mistake is frequently made in advertising, my guess is that even in an example like this, the writers would not have known that they needed a comma.

The Jones ad leaves one asking, “Keeping up with the Jones’ what?” Clearly the writers meant to say “Joneses,” meaning to not fall behind in the competition to own as many possessions as your neighbors, whose last name is Jones. But by adding the apostrophe instead of the “es,” they made the name possessive, and so it requires an object, such as car, which is, perhaps, speeding down the road, and you are trying to catch up with it. Or maybe it could refer to lifestyle, which would be appropriate in this case, but even then “lifestyle” would have to be added to the sentence, so the reader does not have to guest what it means.

You can read the other 18 questions from the article at http://ow.ly/gJP2A .

An Apostrophe Where It Shouldn’t Be

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What is it about apostrophes that makes people want to insert them into places where they have no business being placed?

I first noticed this sign, “Voted Best Sub’s By Our Customers,” with its glaringly wrong apostrophe several months ago, and have been waiting to see if someone would catch the mistake and correct it.

No one has.

It’s hard to see how the misuse of this apostrophe was overlooked by the owner of the restaurant or the painter of the sign, regardless of their education levels or disinterest in grammar. Could it be that they have never really looked at the sign, or that they simply don’t care? Could it be that not a single customer has mentioned the mistake, or that in hearing about it, the owner just passed the comment off as being unimportant?