Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Postcards and laundromat visits: The Texas Tribune audience team experiments with IRL distribution
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May 30, 2017, 12:14 p.m.

Our old friend Josh Sternberg — you may know him from his days at Digiday, The Washington Post, or NBC News — has started a morning media newsletter called The Media Nut (née The Media Mix). I’ve found it to be an interesting complement to the headlines-and-links style of most morning media emails; it’s Josh going a little deeper on three or so topics each morning, using his background knowledge (which is stronger in the ad-agency/ad-buying world than most in our little business). You should try it out!

Anyway, Josh does Q&As with people in his newsletter and he asked me. Here’s a copy of our quick exchange over email that ran in this morning’s edition.

Josh Sternberg: You’ve been watching media companies for a long time. What are 3 things they’ve gotten right?

Joshua Benton: It’s hard to lump “media companies” together on something like this, but a few thoughts:

— Newspapers were generally right to raise the print subscription prices through the roof, to stop trying to reach younger readers with discounting and churn, and to recognize that if you’re reading a print newspaper in 2017, you’re probably a pretty committed customer (as well as at retirement age). That’s helped them deal with inevitable subscription decline while keeping print circulation revenue relatively steady, in many cases.

— The New York Times was right to resist the urge to cut its newsroom to anything like the degree large metro papers did, recognizing that strong international and investigative reporting (for instance) were key to differentiating itself from the rest of the industry. They wouldn’t be able to convince 2 million-plus people to pay for a digital subscription if they’d done what, say, the Los Angeles Times or Chicago Tribune did.

— I think, broadly speaking, that news organizations have correctly viewed fake news as a chance to clarify their mission and meaning, both to the public and to themselves. One underrated impact of the web on traditional publishers has been to screw up their sense of identity. Are we still watchdogs? Are we pageview chasers? Are we the full bundle of news and information we used to offer, or some subset? Are we planning a strategic future or just managing decline, watching the plane slowly circle its way to the ground? The 2016 campaign and what has followed has brought some clarity to why our jobs are important, which both helps make the argument for why what we do deserves customer dollars more clear and gives a morale boost to an industry that needed one.

Sternberg: Nieman Lab does a huge “look in the crystal ball” series every year. Do you ever, years later, revisit predictions folks made and have them write why they were wrong (or right!)?

Benton: No, because I want predictors to optimize for interestingness, not accuracy. If we did a report card a year later, people would get more cautious and say things like “I predict print advertising will continue its decade-long decline next year,” which is boring. I’ll take some smart person’s vivid fever dream of what 2018 might bring over dull correctness.

Sternberg: What’s the biggest trend you see media chasing after that you think has lasting legs?

Benton: I think the podcast boom has legs. Publishers love the fact that a podcast’s customer relationship is not intermediated in the same way text is (by Facebook, primarily). It’s a direct subscriber/publisher relationship — it’s like recapturing a bit of the days when news traffic arrived via people typing into the browser window. While all forms of advertising get commodified eventually, I think podcast advertising, particularly host-read ads, will maintain premium value longer than most. And podcasts done right can do a great job taking advantage of one of publishers’ key assets — that their newsrooms employ smart and interesting people — better than text and at a lower price point than video.

Sternberg: Conversely, which trend do you think they need to stop pursuing?

Benton: I am 100 percent prepared to be wrong about this, but I think many publishers’ continued investment in video will prove to be a waste of time and money. The platform control of monetization, the high cost structure of quality video, the terrible quality of cheap semi-automated videos some publishers are pushing — there will be winners that come out of it, but nearly all of them won’t come from the newsier end of publishing. There are local news sites, most of them chain owned, that stuff so much crap autoplay video onto article pages (just to hit meaningless plays-per-month metrics for corporate bosses) that they are painful for browsers to render, much less for readers to read. The accurate belief that people love consuming video doesn’t mean people love consuming news video.

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