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The Plea for the Press to Evolve

by / Monday, 25 February 2013 / Published in Industry, Local, Social Media, Startups
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With a couple years in Austin, TX, and a former 12 in Silicon Valley, I’ve had an exceptional experience working with distinctly different entrepreneurial communities. Each has a little bit of a grass is greener complex going on – Silicon Valley sees Austin as hip, less expensive, up and coming, entrepreneurial more than “startup,” but also independent; while Austin often believes Silicon Valley is where one must go for experienced tech talent or serious venture capital. Of course, I’m generalizing, and those perceptions are neither entirely accurate nor inaccurate, but I think they are fair generalizations and that’s my only point in sharing them; to set the stage for the thoughts here.

At the end of the day, every city, every community, has a unique set of market dynamics that make things work within that micro-economy. We have distinct cultures, experiences, resources, priorities, markets, and systems of education, and our job as entrepreneurs, as people, is to work within the dynamics of our market.

Challenging the macro economy (the economy or your state or country) is that we try to learn by example. Cities see something that works elsewhere and tries to replicate it, presuming that what works there, will work here. If the University system is heavily involved in a successful community, it can easily be presumed that getting the University system engaged in your community will drive the same success. Incubators are incredibly effective and invaluable in some cities, you must need them in yours. If you’re local economy doesn’t have enough Venture Capitalists, you must foster VC funding as that’s how startups are funded… isn’t it?? No. It isn’t that simple. Various dynamics enable one slice of an economy to have the impact that it does and as your community has different dynamics, what’s good for the goose isn’t necessarily good for the gander.

There is though, one market dynamic that I’ve come to believe is exceptional to Silicon Valley and would indeed, significantly, benefit every other entrepreneurial environment, if we were to learn by example and work toward fostering the same in our respective cities.

The Role of the News Media

How might journalism surviveOver the past decade, we’ve had a revolutionary shift in how we consume news; and no, I’m not talking about the death of print and the paper as our use of technology has replaced how we consume the news. The shift has been more subtle, more nuanced, and it affects our expectation of the media and affinity to traditional news brands.

With the rise of the Portal (Yahoo), RSS (blogs), Google (search), Twitter (social media), and Facebook (our communities), we’ve arrived at a point where we can know everything, immediately, on demand, and in detail. I’ve intentionally tried to stage the evolution of technology there in the order which we’ve experienced it. Yahoo (really, AOL first, I suppose), set the expectation that we can go to one place for far more information than any single media brand was capable of providing before then. RSS technology (and everything that came along with it), gave us the ability to aggregate everything, shifting some of the control of information FURTHER from a single brand (i.e. the newspapers), to a single brand aggregating many sources (Yahoo), to the ability to aggregate what we want. Google gave us even more personal control, timely news on demand, and finally, because of their index, an exceptional jump in the comprehensiveness of coverage. But Google didn’t have everything. Twitter opened our worlds next, truly, to citizen journalism. While the blog enabled people to write, it really took Twitter to teach the world that we could follow the news of any one, any where, any time. The fire hose that was Twitter though, frankly, gave further rise to the already-existing Facebook as we revolted against too much, saying, “I only want to follow the news of my friends, family, and peers.”

Through that evolution we learned that the role of the media is to inform us of everything, on our terms.

In 2008, The New York Times reported that “newspapers and magazines do not have an audience problem — newspaper Web sites are a vital source of news, and growing — but they do have a consumer problem.” Times reporter continued, “Stop and think about where you are reading this column. If you are one of the million or so people who are reading it in a newspaper that landed on your doorstop or that you picked up at the corner, you are in the minority. This same information is available to many more millions on this paper’s Web site, in RSS feeds, on hand-held devices, linked and summarized all over the Web.” A year later, The Chronicle of Higher Education shared, “During our most recent conversation, James Traub, a distinguished journalist who writes for The New York Times, noted that what most worries him about the current state of journalism is the dwindling support for lengthy investigations that lead to in-depth articles on complicated issues. The goal of higher education is, among other things, to prepare people to become responsible and productive citizens. Without serious journalists who are free to do their jobs thoroughly and carefully, democratic society as we have known it cannot survive.” Let me be clear that I’m not trying to be critical of the news media brands but there clearly is an epidemic in the industry and it’s one that has been plaguing the industry for a decade. The question is, what do we do about it?

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism indeed found, in 2012…

New research released in this report finds that mobile devices are adding to people’s news consumption, strengthening the lure of traditional news brands and providing a boost to long-form journalism. Eight in ten who get news on smartphones or tablets, for instance, get news on conventional computers as well. People are taking advantage, in other words, of having easier access to news throughout the day – in their pocket, on their desks and in their laps.

At the same time, a more fundamental challenge that we identified in this report last year has intensified — the extent to which technology intermediaries now control the future of news.

They want on, “A year ago, we wrote here: ‘The news industry, late to adapt and culturally more tied to content creation than engineering, finds itself more a follower than leader shaping its business.'”

The News That’s Fit To Print

You see the attempts by the media to evolve to meet this changing expectation. The rise of the 24 hour news cycle with CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and other news stations, is evident of our demand for always accessible news. Print media, unable to update itself constantly, didn’t die as we moved from consuming through a piece of paper to a laptop, it died (it’s dying) because it continues to fail to meet that consumer expectation – even online, print news favors the stories of old rather than the timely and comprehensive coverage we demand today. When I look to my local news source, I expect to have everything going on locally; it’s role is not to determine what’s news, that’s my role. Instead of working to fulfill that expectation and sustain their brand, print continue to make laughable mistakes; creating digital versions of their traditional newspaper, as though digital means we really just want to consume the good old newspaper on an iPad in a way that we can turn the pages.

While I’m being harshly critical of some news brands’ ability to change, there have been incredible success stories; notably from Silicon Valley where technology comes first. It’s in their success stories that we find the real crux of the challenge in our new expectations of news. In our demand for a brand to cover everything, please appreciate that I’m not saying it’s the news media’s fault (not entirely anyway) – it’s nearly impossible for a single brand to be aware of and cover everything. While the traditional, corporate, organized entity for reporting can be broadcast 24/7, it’s impossible for a few employed reporters to possibly report all the news.

But it’s not impossible for technology to accomplish that.

Rather, it’s not impossible for those who understand the role that technology played in evolving our expectations of the news media – in shifting our demand from that of in-depth, quality reporting, to comprehensive coverage on our terms, to evolve. Technologies, such as those powering Techmeme or Paper.li show us that it’s possible to meet our expectations technically. Techcrunch and VentureBeat show us that it’s possible for traditional news reporting brands to evolve. How? Look to how communities socialize business.

The Driving Force in Socializing Startups

Shockwave InnovationsJust a couple months ago, Gordon Daugherty, Austin angel investor and Director of Capital Factory’s developing accelerator, remarked that the PR industry is going through a transformation as startups conclude that they don’t really need it, “since they can use social media channels instead.”

He’s not wrong in saying that we don’t need traditional PR but let’s not confuse that by thinking that we don’t need the media.

The fact that PR stands for “public relations” causes people to think a particular way but shouldn’t confuse the key purpose and intent of the function: to get important messages out to important constituents,” added Daugherty. “In the old days this typically centered on press releases and media pitching to get coverage in various types of print publications.”

What we need is for the media to evolve with our changing expectations. The way to do that, is to open the doors to your community’s marketing channels. So first ask yourself, does your community really have a local marketing channel?

What makes Techcrunch so pervasive, and the coverage of an entrepreneurial market such as Silicon Valley so in depth, is that the entire startup economy in California is driven by marketers. Bear with me a sec, I hear you asking, “but aren’t they internet and technology companies??” Indeed they are, but distinct about Silicon Valley relative to other communities is the early, prioritized investment in growth and marketing. Where other communities hire marketing expertise only after they’ve figured out how to make money with a venture, Silicon Valley puts marketing talent in the earliest stages of a team; often, marketing is the 4th or 5th hire in a business. And that, changes the entire dynamic of the local economy.

“But we can’t afford marketing”

Such a foreign concept that thought is to many experienced marketers, that many communities are in a death spiral when it comes to entrepreneurship. Without marketers, ventures aren’t effectively positioned, traction easily attainable these days, is lost, too little capital is raised, and local industries remain fractured and nascent. You can’t afford not to invest in marketing as marketers don’t sell your paid web service or run Adwords to get you white paper downloads, anyone with a budget can do that. Marketers evangelize industries, help create value and equity leading to capital, get early traction for entrepreneurs without having to learn or question how, and position ventures in such a way that the world cares. Such marketers don’t engage a community where they aren’t supported or prioritized and without such marketers, the entrepreneurs in such a community are doomed to languish (or get outpaced by entrepreneurs in other economies), because they languish, they can’t afford good marketers – the death spiral.

What do you get when you have marketers penetrating every venture in a market? What do you get when businesses employ individuals who talk, sell, network, and toot their own horn? What do you get when the individuals who can do PR, as well as social media, blogging, SEO, advertising, and branding and messaging in their sleep are part of the fabric of your community? When they are vested and invested in your business??

Frankly, marketers who are all a little egotistical…

You get talked about. You get socialized. And the media, the evolving news media, recognizing and appreciating that consumers demand comprehensive coverage, talks about you; not because you are a story they like or think their readers will like, but because you are news – and in the noise that exists in a community, marketers help you rise above the noise so that those who cover the news comprehensively, know to cover you.

Don’t get me wrong, PR and demand gen experts have been working closely together for a long time. But with social media marketing having one leg in each camp, some companies will struggle to decide how they want to organize and/or how they want to go about using agencies and freelancers.” adds Daugherty. “If you’re a startup or early stage company, this doesn’t matter very much because you’ll have very limited resources (in-house or outsourced) that will need to wear multiple marketing hats anyway.”

Why you can’t afford not to invest in marketing

What I fear many fail to realize is that the exploding pace of entrepreneurship and the… what’s bigger than exploding?… pace of innovation and technology means that moving quickly and efficiently to scale your business isn’t about your success, it’s about avoiding your failure. I assure you, whatever great idea you have for a venture, a small business, a technology, an innovation, someone else is doing it too. As new businesses try to conserve funds by learning how to grow their businesses on their own, elsewhere, the entrepreneurs with similar ideas realize that marketers define product roadmaps, development priorities, create stories, and identify marketing channels by knowing your market and having the experience to put you there, effectively and immediately. While you’re learning, they’re going to market.

What I know is that the news media must evolve if we’re to adapt (return) local communities to the more entrepreneurial economy we once had in the United States. As news brands grasp the significance that comprehensive coverage has on a community, as they appreciate that our expectations are indeed that they cover a greater breadth of news, they must rely on that community that is socializing everything if they hope to remain aware of what’s going on.

Many have explored how and if the traditional PR agency can fill this role; whether or not the PR firm can effectively play in this new era of growth hacking, in which your organization must understand and leverage the synergy that’s created in content marketing, SEO, social media, PR, and conversion optimization as one. Startups and business owners will continue to discover that PR firms have their place, and scaling your venture is not likely it.

Chris Seper CEO of MedCity Media, recognizes these trends and offers that, as with any established business model, incentives must be put in place for the media to change (apparently the loss of news media jobs and erosion of an audience isn’t incentive enough).

It’s common to have reporters, based solely on what interests them, pursue stories that aren’t part of their primary assignment,” shares Chris in a LinkedIn article, Journalists should share in the success (and the risk). “Imagine someone assigned to write about a specific community who is into cooking that starts writing disproportionately about homemade recipes by local residents versus issues facing the local government. That’s a real example, by the way, and it dilutes the quality of a product.”

Every journalism job, he suggests, should have a bonus structure in which a reporter’s total compensation is based off benchmarks that consider the amount of traffic they bring to the brand. Reporters can and should continue to cover news that interests and appeals to them; certainly, they must (if not they then who?) continue to do in depth reporting, but news media hopefully also appreciate that their consumers, our economies and entrepreneurs, need more breadth of coverage.

Consider your local economy and ask yourself if you are aware of the incredible health care, manufacturing, mobile, ecommerce, video game, or venture capital industries that exist there. I’m sure you know how great it is to live and work in your city but do you really know why? Imagine what would happen to your economy if your stories were shepherded by marketers who know how to expose and get traffic for those stories, to a local and national news media that understands the value of that traffic, and what that would mean to business where you live and work.

25 Responses to “The Plea for the Press to Evolve”

  1. milsyobtaf says :

    @omarg with a name like SEO’Brien, he’s gotta be legit

  2. medcitynews says :

    @seobrien Thx for the shout out – we would say TC and MCN represent the evolution of the press; agree about ignorance of local startups

  3. BenitaT says :

    @omarg the type of marketing he discusses has a name, it’s called “advertising”

  4. omarg says :

    @BenitaT It certainly sounded familiar.

  5. seobrien says :

    @tim_umt Thanks ya’ll (hey, have you met PerkPals yet? Awesome idea founded in Austin – intro?)

  6. AGBeat says :

    So this echoes a conversation you and Benn and I had last week wherein we compared Silicon Valley with Austin and debated(?) the lean startup method which you touched on above. I’m still torn, because I wonder if the kumbaya-ness is too deeply ingrained in me personally as an Austinite? I still have ideals that some would consider naive in that I’d like to grow slowly, and I think there is value in bootstrapping.
    That said, what you’re addressing with news is real, but it’s also because there are different *types* of news. @omarg  and I certainly don’t do the same thing, nor do we have the same methods, audience, or even company structure, but in the end, it’s all news content – but is tainted news really news? Certain outlets have long been criticized for political leanings, and I don’t know that a bonus structure would fix that… 
     
    Does any of that make sense or am I high on bath salts? (I’m not, for the record…)

  7. AGBeat says :

    (ugh, that was me. wrong livefyre handle)

  8. AGBeat says :

    DANGIT DANGIT DANGIT! That was me (Lani), not AGBeat…

  9. seobrien says :

    @AGBeat  @omarg Well said laniar and let’s be clear, I never claimed or claim to be a reporter capable of effectively communicating my point; frankly, I’m pleased this struck a chord and started a conversation.  The news brands, news organizations, aren’t at fault and I’m not at all suggesting THEY must change.  But something must.  Agree with me or not, brand readership, for the most part, has been in decline for at least half a decade.  I cited sources from longer ago than that which touched on the transforming role of news media to which I refer, and the fact that was clear then, that technology brands were dominating the way we consume news. The question isn’t if or how traditional news brands and reporters must dilute their coverage, evolve the way they work, to meet our demands – our demands are STILL for in depth, quality reporting.  Rather, that it’s now ALSO possible for consumers to get their news on their terms AND that that changes the expectations consumers have with news.  As that happens, we can get more of that news from citizen journalists (who aren’t necessarily qualified, ethical, or fact based in their reporting) – as has happened and to the detriment of news brands and reporters.  OR local economies can encourage businesses and entrepreneurs to understand the role that marketers and PR professionals play so that the news media can more effectively and comprehensively cover their market.

  10. AGBeat says :

    @seobrien  how do you see niche sites playing into the mix? (I ask as a niche site) ;)

  11. seobrien says :

    @AGBeat I believe they’re the future Lani.  While we criticize and revere Fox News or MSNBC (depending on which side of aisle you consider yourself in the United States), the fundamental fact is media, like anyone in business, finds it’s niche and makes money to sustain itself by specializing.  Consider Techcrunch, the shining example of comprehensive coverage of technology and innovative entrepreneurship; as such a brand continues to grow, it actually loses value in trying to be more things to more people.  It’s a twisted logic, how could a larger audience, more people, be an indication of it losing value?? And yet such things do lose value, not in terms of their reach but their influence.  Over time, as small businesses become companies, companies become corporations, they grow, they reach more people, but the also dilute their own brand – ultimately to be replaced by something else.  The “something else” emerges from that specialization.I’d argue, or question, if the same isn’t true of media.  Once newspaper brands dominated our media consumption, they grew and in growing, were diluted as more local or niche publications emerged.  They didn’t fail, but eventually other specialized media outlets sprung up – radio, TV, internet.  Those specialized media channels also grew and as they grew, the old media was systematically replaced; not entirely, but certainly to some extent.  Perhaps a gross example of the idea but how much influence does the USA Today have today?  It’s everywhere, pervasive, and yet, does it really influence?  Compared to the WSJ, Fox News, Techcrunch, etc.?So what role do the niche sites play? We’ve not yet begun to specialize the media as extensively as might be possible.  We have the major media publications for the technology industry in general (forgive me for sticking with Tech, it’s what I know), but who are the major brands in media for video games or mobile?  Okay… I can name them.  What about eCommerce, mobile payments, big data, or the social graph?  I can still name a few but it’s getting tough.  What about those that cover Texas vs. Calfornia or Austin vs. Silicon Valley precisely?Sure, we get to the point that those are so niche that most don’t know the brand names but their respective industries know them, they are trusted, qualified, quality media sources for each industry.  They are usually profitable and growing; which is saying a lot.  AND because of technology and the ability those media channels have to listen to and cover their industry comprehensively, means that the consumer demand for comprehensive coverage is met by aggregating those sources.
     
    They are the future, and their continued growth is a huge win for everyone.  By no means have we figured out how to make it work yet, how to sustain all of the incredible, qualified reporters, our economy will need to support them all, but it will happen; it already is.

  12. SpeakAdam says :

    Really appreciate the article Paul. The traditional PR to print methodology has not fully shifted, but the walls have big cracks. Doubters will look around confused when the whole edifice falls to the ground.

  13. ErnestoRodriguez says :

    Great article, I am in total agreement about new media.

  14. BartVidrine says :

    Sound Logic. Great Post.

  15. Sarah Snyder says :

    As a veteran journalist for more than a decade, I say good luck. For more than 5 years, the buzz in the newspaper industry is that hyperlocal is key. Sadly the people in charge don’t get it or are slow to respond, while the younger journos aren’t always in positions to enact change. Additionally, web analytics say our communities mostly just want to hear the “sexy” stuff. When it bleeds it leads. Since newspapers are in the business of making money, not ensuring quality journalist, the product suffers. Just as the Honey Boo Boo show became a success, it *is* the masses that drive the product. Add to that financial constraints – newspapers can afford to make sure the meat and potatoes dominate their coverage. They’re held hostage, forced to serve up fried Twinkies. I support your call to action, but tell you good luck.

  16. Sarah Snyder says :

    Case in point: Your post would probably be read top to bottom by about 2% of my local population. That’s no reflection of its quality or message, both of which are exceptional. We’re stuck in a “here comes the plane,” instant-gratification culture.

  17. Sarah Snyder says :

    This kind of culture led to the online media migration.

  18. Sarah Snyder says :

    I’m probably dating myself – and you’ve probably seen this – but your post reminds me of Epic 2014: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUHBPuHS-7s.

  19. Sarah Snyder says :

    Okay one more comment (famous last words). Your post brings to mind this: http://articles.cnn.com/2010-06-11/tech/new.york.times.tweet_1_word-tweet-micro-blogging-site-twitter?_s=PM:TECH

  20. seobrien says :

    Great points Sarah, thank you.  It’s interesting, I’ve had very mixed reactions from the traditional press having a real problem with what I’m saying here (pointing out my ignorance of how the news media works; without knowing my experience) on one hand while on the other, marketers and entrepreneurs seem to say hell yeah!  I point that out because beyond my targeted, sensationalist headline (I learn from press!), this isn’t really a request or expectation for the formal press to change.  It’s a wake up call that the press is just as you point out.  That for local communities, for any type of community, to get exposure and coverage, IT must enable that.
     
    We’ll always need and want the in depth, researched, and quality stories.  But the expectations of the consumers have and continue to change (evident simply in any trend line for traditional news media brands – which have been in free fall for years).  The press needs to figure out how to provide that good quality coverage without going to the Honey Boo Boo crap because while that works, it also turns off many (certainly those who want to read the good quality stuff).  
     
    With an economy, a community, that provides the news and a news media that’s receptive and open to covering more than what it wants, it isn’t hard nor expensive (for the media) to be comprehensive.  It’s difficult for a local economy to do and that’s why we see so few economies in which it happens – Silicon Valley covers tech and startups fairly comprehensively; Hollywood covers entertainment fairly comprehensively – that’s not because the press there is different, it’s because the people working in that community enable and demand the coverage.  With that in mind, how is any other city going to rival a place like Silicon Valley when it comes to tech/innovation if the people working in said city don’t enable and demand the press cover everything?

  21. seobrien says :

    THIS.
    “Google News is edited entirely by computers.”
    And simply, “Everybody contributes.”Can’t believe I haven’t seen this until now

  22. Sarah Snyder says :

    @seobrien I don’t have an answer, except that the readers’ expectations within their respective community is king. Silicon Valley has a readership much more sophisticated, so the answer is time. But I suspect Austin is there, and if they’re not I’m surprised and shame on them if that’s not the case.

  23. James Moore says :

    Paul,

    I agree with most of what you said, however, the idea of reporters being paid for traffic is certain to only compound the problem of creating gratuitously salacious content. Frankly, that’s a bit of how we get into this mess. The brand media simply don’t want to deal with issues because they are boring; instead, they turn everything into an unsolvable conflict. Unlike your favorite movies and books where conflict is eventually resolved and you get a satisfying ending, that can’t happen in the media or readers and viewer disappear. Consequently, we can expect Bill O’Reilly to be yelling at someone new every day, and even if that person disagreed with him but finally came around to his point of view, O’Reilly simply could not let that stand. Conflict, like sex, sells in the media. The Rs will yell and undercut the Ds until they are back in charge, and then the process will reverse, which is why nothing ever gets accomplished in Washington.
    Most of the major media outlets that I worked for during my career have all pulled back from coverage outside of their media markets. Hyper-local is, indeed, the new approach but it also becomes a kind of debilitating myopia. If you do not have interest in the broader issues happening elsewhere outside of your community, how in the hell can you be informed enough to write about them when they arrive at your doorstep. I think the truth is that the net has tortured the traditional media to a point where those of us who no longer rely on it simply look to niches where our interests lie and pay no attention to the mainstream until it hits upon a subject we find compelling, which, sadly, is not very often in the age of the web.

  24. SEO'Brien says :

    Well said James though I offer that we’re in this mess, a result of reporters being paid for traffic, precisely because of what’s transpired with regard to our expectations of the brands. When the media failed to deliver on our expectation of comprehensive, sophisticated coverage, the public turned to sources more reliable: Google. Because of Google’s early flaws, conflict, scandal, and viral content was that which appeared more prominently and thus, received more traffic. That trend is changing as Google more capably competes with social media by enabling a broader reach into content; promoting not just that which is popular but that which is relevant and meaningful. If the media (and just to reiterate so my point is clear, if Marketers) fail to capable inform reporters of such meaningful content, the press will continue to die.

    Hyperlocal is a dream exacerbated by the fact that local press has thrived while others have struggled. Local press works because it is effectively paid content the likes of which I’m suggesting we need nationally. At a local level, who can best cover all of the dog shows, high school sports, and fund raising galas but a paid, passionate reporter? It works because it is comprehensive and sophisticated. Locals can rely on their small paper to be better than any other channel.

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