It’s (not so) good to be king

Action camera-maker GoPro buying a virtual reality company. Verizon shelling out $4 billion for AOL to engineer a mobile video revolution. Facebook giving media giants the opportunity to publish directly on its platform via the Instant Articles initiative. With all this going on, it’s no surprise we’re seeing a lot of articles like this one (http://read.bi/1PrNZ2H) announcing that the age of content has arrived. Again.

It’s not much use to have a fantastic distribution tool or network without any content to call your own — hence Verizon’s determination not to become a ‘dumb pipe’ that does nothing but deliver other companies’ intellectual property (and ad traffic). At the same time, content needs an audience, and content creators will increasingly be forced to work with the giants of social media to reach the biggest ones. Facebook’s reach is massive and the terms for its Instant Articles service are fairly generous, so signing up seems like a no-brainer for publishers — hence why marquee names like the New York Times and National Geographic are among the early adopters. And while Facebook can (and probably will) change the terms later, it will still need well-known producers of credible content for its foray into news to succeed, meaning publishers will always have retain a certain amount of leverage.

That said, it’s inevitable that by coming to the content via Facebook’s platform many users will associate what they read or watch via Instant Articles with the Facebook name and ecosystem, even if the original publishers plaster their names and fonts all over it. More people will be telling each other about the stories or videos they saw “on Facebook” and not necessarily mentioning the original producer of the content — much like happens with with Youtube now. Publishers are therefore, unwittingly or not, helping build Facebook’s credibility as a media and publishing force its own right, and may be weakening their future negotiating position with Facebook and clout with consumers. Count on Facebook eventually forcing Instant Articles, regardless of where they come from, to conform to a more unified look or style to accelerate this process.

Distribution is important, but in the interests of balance (and self-preservation) content creators may not need to pursue reach above everything else; a bigger audience doesn’t necessarily mean more engagement, subscribers or dollars. Consistently producing top-notch material for a smaller, more receptive group of followers can be a more effective way to build loyalty and a reputation, and distribution (at least to start with) can be as simple a matter as using the industry or personal networks you’re already part of. Social media has produced some behemoths, but it’s also a great leveller, allowing content producers to reach a wide number of people without riding another brand or technology’s coattails. On the other hand for distributors or platforms (like Verizon, and Facebook) it’s nowhere near as easy to find a consistent, freely available and largely automated source of relevant content (yet). Content might not be king — but it’s got a healthy amount of sovereignty.

 

China’s startup capital

Where’s the best place in China to be a technology startup? According to a CNN article by one of n/n’s very own it’s not bustling Shanghai, or even our much-beloved home base of Hong Kong, but the factory boomtown of Shenzhen, where manufacturing prowess and (now) funding have combined to produce some very interesting results. Read more here: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/05/14/tech/shenzhen-startup-city/index.html

Sounds like a place worth watching, though not having a hardware focus, we’re not planning to pick up and move across the border just yet …

Of cake and eating it

For media companies and other creators of content, it’s one of the oldest debates in the book — is it better to specialise, or appeal to as wide an audience as possible?

According to a fine article by the new-age marketing gurus at Digiday (http://bit.ly/1AzEPF7)  the answer is, well … a bit of both. At least if you’re The Wall Street Journal, which is determined to keep its coverage broad, but simultaneously investing heavily to zero in on ‘niche’ industries like logistics. While not without risks, it’s a solid strategy to play that runs counter to the wider industry trend of publishers constantly expanding reportage to ensnare as wide an audience as possible — sometimes burning through a lot of resources and alienating people in the process. Something to keep in mind here though — first, the ‘niche’ areas the WSJ is targeting aren’t exactly of the ‘molecular physics’ or ‘animal husbandry’ variety. Logistics for example is a $4 trillion industry home to some of the biggest companies in the world; plenty of ripe marketing possibilities there. So perhaps the trick is to not only balance some degree of mass appeal and subject-level expertise, but to choose the fields you specialise in carefully.

So you want to be a (digital) journalist

Check out this thought-provoking piece (http://fus.in/1GfPbhS) from fellow Reuters alumni Felix Salmon, now with Fusion, on careers (or the lack thereof) in ‘digital’ journalism — loosely defined as the morass of ‘platforms’ and media startups that are replacing radio and newspapers as the budding newsperson’s employer of choice. Leaving aside the irony of someone who’s carved out a career at as a digital journalist at a millennial-minded media outlet writing about how it’s impossible to do exactly that, the article makes a couple of very salient points.

First, the (US)  journalism salary scale — where pay apparently tops out at around $60,000 — is exactly why we have head-scratching situations like these (http://slate.me/1K0CWH3), where Pulitzer winners are forced to leave the industry to make ends meet. It’s also true the rapid proliferation of new media ‘platforms’ is likely to not only prove disruptive to traditional forms of media, but to these platforms themselves, and the young digital natives that power them. Even the newest industries are subject to the laws of economic gravity — increased supply leads to lower prices, for subscriptions and advertising and journalists alike. And if technology is the only differentiator, it’s the only thing that’s truly irreplaceable, and where the only substantial investments will be made.

So does that leave journalism best pursued as a hobby? As Salmon seems to conclude, probably not. Most people don’t get into it for the money in the first place, and there will always be journalists who manage to thrive; it’s just going to be a lot more competitive. We also agree that cultivating craft and expertise in something specific, whether it’s the offshore bond markets or scripting for video, is probably the best form of job insurance there is. A specialisation can always prove valuable in another field, if, as is the case with our Pulitzer winners these days, journalism doesn’t allow you to pay the rent.

No hard sell

It’s not a daily event, but every once in a while, the worlds of journalism, publishing and marketing converge to create content that shines. Thanks to the clever folks at Contently for tipping us off (http://bit.ly/1CBB8Tv) to an exceptional example from Marriott Hotels, which has just launched a travel magazine that’s (so far at least) beautifully designed, well-written and genuinely informative. It also barely mentions the company or its plush properties throughout (though the website of course makes booking a stay very easy if one is so inclined). Check out the inaugural issue, on New Orleans, here: http://traveler.marriott.com/new-orleans/

Rather than badgering an audience to make a purchase, this approach positions Marriott as an authoritative (and entertaining) source of intelligence on a perennially interesting topic — a much better way to keep people coming back. Also interesting is that the project has the potential to generate revenue in its own right. A tip of the n/n hat to Marriott for challenging some common, if usually unspoken, beliefs about marketing — that it’s typically a cost centre, should stick to formulas and is no place for quality journalism, or the truth. We know where we’ll be booking our next vacation.

 

 

For whom the (media) bell tolls

The sudden demise of widely respected technology news website Gigaom (RIP) has sent a chill through media circles. If an outlet with a monthly readership in the millions, an authoritative roster of journalists and a diverse business model that extends into research and events can’t make it — even after several successful funding rounds  — what hope can there possibly be for the rest of us?

It’ll be a while before the post-mortems are concluded. But one of the reigning — and more disheartening — theories so far is that Gigaom was in essence punished for doing everything right. Its determination to avoid the sensationalism and ‘clickbait’ that litters much of the Internet media landscape was well known, as was its doggedly independent editorial stance, which didn’t endear it to many potential customers and advertisers. Slate‘s Will Oremus (http://slate.me/1Byz4d6) and Jason Bloomberg in Forbes (http://onforb.es/1D8vGZJ) have both produced riveting reads on this theme.

Another possibility is that Gigaom simply took on more money than it could handle — see this piece by Danny Sullivan in Medium (http://bit.ly/1C5kgGn). While this obviously leaves Gigaom looking slightly less heroic, Sullivan’s point that venture capital isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially for media companies, is spot on. We don’t discount the idea entirely, but our experiences suggest Gigaom wasn’t killed off for refusing to play ball with big technology vendors. It’s not only readers who respect and value journalistic independence — the best advertisers do too, because they’re confident enough to not only withstand a little scrutiny, but welcome it.

 

Words from a gatekeeper

As far as we know, it’s not too often that a star literary agent opens up on the state of the industry, so this candid interview with rainmaker Chris Parris-Lamb in the always-illuminating Guernica magazine is well worth a read: http://bit.ly/1AyPEWk.

Despite the changes sweeping the publishing world Parris-Lamb remains defiantly traditional in some of his beliefs – not least that writers deserve to earn a respectable living and that good editors are still very much a necessity in the days of self-publishing. Full agreement from the n/n bunker on both counts.

The most dangerous gift

There’s been a very interesting conversation unfolding on Twitter over the last couple of days under the #AdviceForYoungJournalists hashtag. Recommendations for budding hacks has come fast and furious, and has ranged from the depressing (from @joemfbrown, “learn to weld”) to the practical (“always carry toilet paper with you,” @melissakchan advises those working overseas) and the sublime (“go into the world humbly,” @JulieMcCarthyJM). As with all worthy insights, a lot of these would fall into the #AdviceForYoungAnyone category (if it existed). Full disclosure: we chimed in as well, with a recommendation to study and absorb William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style (really. It’s that good.).

And then, an actual young journalist came along with some input that pretty much blew everything else away. For anyone contemplating (or still in) the industry, this fine piece by Will Butler in Medium should be required reading: http://bit.ly/1zYRDpW. Besides, what kind of self-respecting journalist listens to their elders anyway?

 

The news agencies of tomorrow

It’ll require some fancy mouse-work, but do check out the lead story in the latest edition of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong’s magazine, in which a member of the n/n team (among others) weighs in on how the digital environment is changing the news business. The entire publication can be viewed via the following link, with the cover story starting on page 12:

http://www.fcchk.org/article/correspondent-january-february-2015

For those who find it a click too far, the key takeaways: The Internet and mobile platforms represent both an opportunity and a threat to the traditional titans of the industry — news agencies like Reuters, AP and Bloomberg. Helped by their considerable resources and talent, most are already adjusting their strategies to match. And they may find themselves going head-to-head with some of their own customers in the process.

Light in the print media tunnel

Stories about the state of the print media industry are almost relentlessly grim, so it’s nice to see a couple about signs of life in one segment — magazines. The New York Post notes that last year was a banner one for magazine launches (http://bit.ly/13KnDlJ) while NPR has published an uplifting piece on the lasting appeal of literary journals (http://n.pr/1vBWpFG).

On the flipside, both the Atlantic (http://theatln.tc/1zuXlSM) and Bloomberg Businessweek (http://buswk.co/1BW72cw) seem skeptical about the prospects for newly cashed-up Next Issue Media, which offers a Netflix-like app for the magazine world, allowing consumers to access multiple titles with a single monthly subscription. Now granted, these venerable titles may be home to more than a few die-hard print traditionalists, but their core arguments ring true. Glossy pages just don’t look or feel the same on an iPad, and most magazines have perfectly good, responsive websites that make a paid-for app somewhat redundant. Just because a new medium exists doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea to use it.