Local news has always been a weak differentiator.
And once the Internet blew up the local newspaper monopoly, it was never powerful enough to sustain a high-margin media business.
Not one local online newspaper makes it to the top 25 in reach or engagement…in its own market. In the digital world, there’s simply not enough value delivered to users who happen to live within the reach of the old print newspaper.
There’s a lot you can learn about leadership and management from the story of newspapers’ march to extinction. In newspaper companies, the discipline of “marketing” was reduced to “promotion.” It was an ironic failure of perspective, after all, newspapers were in the business of designing information products and delivering them to local consumers – and that made them consumer marketing companies. But if you were in a meeting of newspaper people and called newspapers “consumer marketing companies,” you’d be run out of town on a rail.
Newspapers had come to see themselves as anointed providers of news and commentary, protected in that role by the Constitution and entitled to a loftier social perch than any other media, or business for that matter. So that’s where they sat for decades, up high, insulated from commercial reality and convinced that marketing was malarkey.
Marketing is not promotion. Marketing is a disciplined process for listening to a market, interpreting how it is evolving and then either refining an existing offering to serve it or creating and delivering and selling a new one. Because they never learned how to do that, newspapers became products stuck in time, speaking to a fictional mass market stuck in time. When that mass market fragmented, newspaper didn’t know how to develop and brand vertical products for market segments. As the digital competition began to chase the niches, newspaper companies continued to fly right over the top of them with their online newspapers. The same product for everybody in town. One size fits all. Except it doesn’t. Not any more.
News, bundled or not, is a commodity now. Distribution is free. And competition for attention is intense.
The digital world is a big, bountiful world where users feel a lot like the mosquito flying over a nudist colony wall: It all looks so good, they don’t know where to start. Products and choices have proliferated dramatically and consumers have become all-powerful and highly promiscuous. In the universe of digital media there are few physical impediments to customer churn, often not even subscription barriers, so establishing a unique brand attribute – what we used to call the “unique sales proposition” – is critical, not just in attracting users but in maintaining their loyalty. Clear product differentiation is essential. To be different is to be not the same. To be unique is to be one of a kind. What makes you and your product separate and distinct from your competition?
Establishing differentiation is not a new challenge in media of course, those magazines that have survived the digital onslaught have done so by winning in the niches. And radio programmers have always had to deal with competitors just one click away. Don’t touch that dial.
Before radio, back in the day when newspapers ruled, it was not uncommon for even small markets to have three or even four competing newspapers, each trying to establish its own relative value. The masthead signaled competitive position. I have a collection of them and “The Only Newspaper in the World That Gives a Damn About Yerington,” from the old Mason Valley News in Reno, is one of my favorites. But once a single newspaper came to dominate in each market, the need to establish competitive difference disappeared. Newspapers became monopolies. They all began to look the same and offer the same kind of thing in a formulaic way because they had no individual personality. And local news, well, that was the linchpin.
But “local” means even less today than it once did, even in the little town of Yerington. Local is a perilously weak differentiator. That simple truth lies at the heart of the failure of every effort to build a local-centric digital news and information network, from AOL Digital Cities to AOL Patch. Oh sure, weak product execution and the high cost of deploying a local advertising sales force were also factors, but at the heart of the problem is the fact that the local dimension in media is an outmoded legal and regulatory fiction based more on how far newspaper trucks could get by sunrise or how far a television station could broadcast an analog transmission than on the way media is consumed today.
What’s happening within a town is but a sliver of the lives of the people who live in it and in the digital age it’s far too small an interest or concern on its own to be the exclusive focus of a big media business, especially one based on advertising. Look at where you traveled on the Internet today. I’ve been to Wellington, New Zealand and Barcelona, Spain, Portland, Maine, New York City and St. Helena Island in South Carolina – and it’s only 10am.
The Town Square has gone digital. The ties that bind us are stronger than ever, but they’ve changed. Anybody under 30 stays in constant contact with a network of friends whose physical location is irrelevant. They know a digital acquaintance across the world better than they know their neighbor. So instead of bifurcating customers on the basis of where they happen to live, media today must take a more holistic view, basing segmentation on personal needs, interests and desires that include but transcend local geography. The earth is no longer flat. It’s vertical.
To win in this vertical world you must understand the principles of digital product development, especially “start small, fail early, fail often:” https://blastofwinter.com/2014/08/13/digital-product-development-means-start-small-fail-often/
And you had better be able to build a product that delivers differentiated value to a specific defined audience. Or you will die. In news it’s all about the shared story now, who it’s for and how you inform it – consistently – with your special style, your provocative perspective, your distinctive voice, your immediately-recognizable presentation and your original analysis. To get that done requires the ability to attract, hire and keep the very best digital talent. That’s no tall order.
If you want to start thinking about the implications of brand differentiation in your line of work, I have a book to recommend. Most books on management today are not worth your time or mine, but this one is different. I should tell you that the author, Jack Trout, is an old colleague of mine. His book, written with Steve Rivkin, is called “Differentiate or Die: Survival in Our Era of Killer Competition.” I keep going back to it time and time again.
You will, too.