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The newsonomics of signature content

The news business needs to pay attention to Hulu and Netflix: Name-brand content is worth investing in — even if it means cutting back elsewhere.
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What’s your signature content?

Quick: If somebody buttonholed you in an elevator, a school play, or a bar, and said, “Why should I pay you for that?” — what do you tell them?

Each passing week, it seems we’re further into the age of signature content. That only makes sense: If the death of distance is now old news, if everything is available everywhere at the touch of button or the swipe of a finger, then what makes any news or entertainment brand stand out amid this plague of plenty?

Closed systems — from three or four TV networks to less than a dozen big movie studios to a half-dozen major magazine publishers to geographically dominant newspapers — made signature content less important. Sure, big shows and big names have always driven media to some extent, but now, media without big names or big shows are going to get lost in the ether. Take Hulu’s announcement last week about Hulu Originals. You do have to wonder if Hulu’s fictional 13-episode “Battleground,” about a dysfunctional political campaign, will be bested by the Republican reality show in progress when the show debuts next month. Hulu is also bringing a Morgan Spurlock series for a second run, and probably will feature one other new program. The Hulu announcement joins Netflix’s own foray into signature content. Three years ago, would the thought of Netflix signing up Little Steven to do an original comedy series have crossed anyone’s imagination?

Hulu and Netflix both need to distinguish themselves in the market — not only from each other, but from Comcast, DirecTV, and Time Warner, among others. They need to buy protection as supposed masses consider cutting the cord on packaged services, Roku-ing and Apple-enabling Internet video onto their living-room screens. In movies and TV, we’re quickly morphing from a world of news and entertainment anywhere — get all of these things, somewhat haphazardly (Comcast Xfinity, for instance) on all of our devices — to one in which consumers ask, “What special do you have for me, in addition to my all access? Yes, All-Access, the cool feature of 2011, will quickly graduate from a wow to an expectation.

Why as consumers should we pay $7.99 (down from an initial $9.99) to Hulu Plus, when the same stuff (kinda sorta) is available through Boxee, or Apple TV, or Netflix, if I can find it? Why am I paying $7.99 a month (apparently the magic price of the moment) to Netflix for a catalog of films that is both voluminous and too often lacking what I want? Consumers are going to be asking that question a lot more.

Publishers, distributors, aggregators, and networks all want more money, and they’ve seen — courtesy of tablets and All-Access — that consumers are now more ready to pay for digital content than ever before.

Forget “content wants to be free.” Now content wants a fee. And everyone from Time Inc to The New York Times to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to Hulu’s co-owners (Fox, Disney, and Comcast) see gold. They see another digital revenue stream, in addition to advertising or to cable subscription fees. Yet they are increasingly believing they’ve got to up the ante (and Hulu is raising new funds to buy original programming) to compete and to win those consumer dollars.

News companies — at least one in ten U.S. daily newspapers and many consumer magazines — are rapidly embracing digital circulation revenue and All-Access. Yet results have been quite uneven. That makes sense: Consumers will pay for digital news, feature, and entertainment content, but they don’t want to overpay, and they’ll increasingly be forced to make choices. Buy this; let that go.

Let’s be clear. Paid media is paid media, and the original-programming pushes of the video companies have great meaning for news and magazine companies, global to local. For them, the calculus is similar. News and magazine brands can launch new products, though that’s out-of-their-DNA-tough for many. So they’ve focused primarily on sub-brands, many of which are people. These are the faces of news and magazines; many of these have become hot commodities over the last several years (“The newsonomics of journalistic star power“) as companies try to distinguish themselves — and give readers and viewers a reason to pick them out of the crowd.

How, though, can media companies afford to pay a premium for branded, promotable talent, talent that may open consumers’ pocketbooks? That’s easy: spend less on other content. So we’ve got the rise of user-generated content, obtainable free or cheap, and all kinds of new syndicate action from Demand Media to startup Ebyline (and maybe NewsRight), all trying to make it cheap and easy to get more medium- and higher-quality content more cheaply. What’s old is new again — as a young features editor, I got regular visits from syndicate and wire salesman, ranging from high-quality to the Copley News Service, that sold its stuff by the pound.

Another prominent model no news or magazine company can afford to ignore: The Huffington Post. Back to the early days when Betsy Morgan first teamed up with Arianna, HuffPost has worked this evolving content pyramid. At the top, a few highly paid site faces, many opinionated faces (some paid, most not), and then low-cost aggregation, much of it AP, headlined with the site’s recognizable swagger.

Then, of course, there’s the old standby: staff cutting. We’ve seen lots of staff cutting. In fact, these days, while we see some announcements like Media General’s big Tampa cut, most of the bloodletting is less public, but no less real. If you need to pay more to stars, and ad revenues are still declining, staff cuts of less than premium content (and those that produce it) make economic sense (“The newsonomics of the new news cost pyramid“). It’s the new news math.

These newsonomics of signature content are getting clearer. Netflix is planning to spend 5 percent of its expenses — or $100 million a year — on original, Netflix-defining content. Hulu is spending about a quarter what Netflix’s total, or $500 million in total, on all content licensing this year. We don’t know how much of that is for original content, but observers believe “Battleground” will cost $15-20 million for its 13 episodes. With its other forays, it will probably spend closer to 10 percent of its content budget on original content.

Curiously, many newspaper newsrooms constitute only 10-20 percent of the overall expenses of a daily newspaper company. So we’re starting to see some new, and old, arithmetic play out here.

Simply, Andy Forssell, Hulu’s SVP of content, explained the cost/benefit ratio to Variety: “…having an original scripted series that hasn’t been seen anywhere else yet is considered the best tool for standing out with either advertisers or viewers.”

As usual, we see the bifurcation of the bigger national brands — those with more audience to gain and more money to spend — and local news brands. While many local newspapers have cut to the bone, with too much of the tissue in the form of experienced, name-brand metro and sports columnists cajoled or drummed into “early retirement,” we see increased branding of stars at places like Time, The New York Times, Fox News, and ESPN. The sports network may be the classic business model of our age, and in its anchors and top analysts — many initially lured from daily newspapers — it has shown the way for many years now.

At the Times, consider business editor Larry Ingrassia’s build-up of business columnists, from veterans Gretchen Morgenson and Floyd Norris to new(er)bies Andrew Ross Sorkin, Brian Stelter, David Carr, Ron Lieber, and David Pogue. And the Times more recently picked up James Stewart from archrival Dow Jones.

At Fox News, Roger Ailes has cannily built the most successful cable news operation not on the interchangeable blondes that provide so much fodder for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but on O’Reilly and Hannity.

At NBC, the news franchise is so built around Brian Williams that his well received newsmagazine “Rock Center with Brian Williams” is synonymous with its host.

At Time Warner’s CNN and Time, we see the building of a worldly franchise on Fareed Zakaria’s clear-eyed, no-nonsense view of our times.

And then there’s the more local and regional press. Newspapers have long believed that it wasn’t any one or a half-dozen names that sold the paper. They’ve believed the news itself was the star, and the daily information report was the brand. That may be still be true of the Times, the Journal, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and a handful of other national/global news organizations — all of which have substantial, multi-hundred newsrooms that produce branded, unique products. It’s less true of regional and local dailies, many of which still present too much commoditized news in national, business, entertainment, and sports coverage, and have bid goodbye to many faces familiar to readers. Those that have retained familiar faces must do what they can to keep them; all need to recruiting more.

Then they may have a good answer to the question, in one form or another, consumers and advertisers will increasingly ask: What’s your signature content?

                                   
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  • http://www.morisy.com Morisy

    Great post, but I’d love to hear what’s changed between now and when the Times tried this strategy in 2005 with Times Select: Are the media organizations getting better about packaging premium content, have consumer habits changed, has purchasing technology gotten easier, or is something else at play?

    I’d tend to think it’s a mixture of both, but just investing in signature content without understanding what can make it actually sell seems like repeating the mistakes of yesteryear, while these early efforts are too nascent to provide a real road map.

  • http://wideaperture.net/blog/ Josh Braun

    I see one potential problem with this logic, which is that the economics of entertainment content are often substantially different than those of current affairs content.  Traffic tails off dramatically to a news item within hours of its posting.  Meanwhile, people are still bootlegging episodes of Star Trek and Indiana Jones decades after they were first produced.  When Hulu and Netflix produce their entertainment programs for a premium, not only can they keep them in their back catalog forever and still enjoy reasonable demand for them, they can also syndicate them to cable networks and other content services afterward for additional second-run revenues.  That’s harder to do with, say, Brian Stelter’s column on SOPA, which is a hot item today and largely devoid of traffic six months from now.

  • http://dr1665.com/ Brian Driggs

    Signature content. Sounds like a charge to specialize; do one thing and do it better than anyone else. What a novel idea, ya know? Instead of trying to be all things to all people, delivering an overall compromise, signature content stands on its own two feet; strong, meaningful, valuable. 

    And how do we discover “what” our signature content might be? We ask why anyone would care about our content. Follow that with how the content serves those who truly care, and I’d say you have a pretty good idea of what constitutes signature content. 

    New subscriber. Enjoyed this piece today. 

  • Christopher Krug

    Journalism > Journalism Institutions: Nice article reminding me that I pay >$30 a month to access the World Wide Web and the Internet. Who owns the paywalls?

  • Jonathan Stray

    On the theme of signature content, Bill Gurley has penned a remarkable post explaining the affiliate fee structure of the TV industry, in which he makes similar points:

    Modern Day Cable Channel Strategy. Today’s most typical cable strategy is built entirely around profit maximization utilizing affiliate fees. If you own a cable channel, your goal is to develop one or two key, hit programs, and fill the rest of the linear lineup with very inexpensive content. The “hits” make you a “must have” for any cable or satellite carrier – granting you the right to ask for fees. Too many hits drive up costs. This is why you will see more and more hit shows on the less well-known cable channels. Mad Men on AMC is a perfect example. How can a cable company not offer Mad Men? Once you nail the single channel game, you immediately try to proliferate that into multiple channels a la MTV and ESPN.