2020 Vision: Newspaper Content, Evolved by: Kristina Ackermann

Posted on February 27, 2012

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In last month’s introduction to the 2020 Vision theory, I wrote that newspapers have reached a critical threshold where they must reinvent themselves now if they hope to be in business in the year 2020. In this installment, I look at a newspaper’s primary product — content — and how I believe that product must evolve to meet the needs of future media consumers.

No matter how quickly technology changes and how drastically the media is affected by those changes, one truth will remain: Content is king. Bill Gates said so in 1996, it’s still true in 2012, and it will still be true in 2020, unless of course those doomsday-apocalypse believers turn out to be correct later this year. Content, however, is more than words on paper (or screen). Content is the end-user’s entire experience: from delivery and first read to sharing an article with a cousin in another state. The experience of content is why alumni of the old school wax nostalgic about sitting in a favorite chair to read the paper with a hot cup of coffee on a Sunday morning. Producing content is as much about building trust and inspiring engagement as it is about reporting, writing, and editing. In 2020, the successful news organizations will be the ones that have devised a cost-effective way of producing rich, engaging content that encourages readers to slow down and spend time with the product.

Content: then and now
To prepare for the changes coming to content in 2020 and beyond, the first step publishers must take is to relinquish all emotional attachment to the past. The days when newspapers held exclusive control over a scarce product are over. Advertisers have more options than ever before, and even the generation of readers that still feels sentimental about newspapers is taking to Twitter to consume and discuss the day’s headlines.

Journalists in 2020 will need to be more than information processors. Context, insight, and story development will be the foundation that supports the larger business initiatives of growing readership and advertising.

The economic necessity of doing more with less is only going to continue in the coming years, so reporters need to stop wasting time rewriting press releases and wire copy, or chasing down original reporting on a story someone else broke yesterday. Media analyst and consultant Jeff Jarvis hit the nail on the head in an essay he wrote for the World Association of Newspapers: “We need to do what we do best and link to the rest.” That is, stop trying to be everything to everyone and focus on the in-depth, local, investigative work that sets your newspaper apart from the rest of the white noise available on the Internet.

General news becomes mass available as soon as it hits the Web, so it doesn’t hold any monetary value to readers. Don’t waste time, energy, and money by chasing these stories. Instead, link to another news organization that has already done the legwork. By focusing on the stories you excel at you’ll be able to best serve your audience and ensure that other news sites are linking back to your content.

Multiplatform necessity
2020 will bring the opportunity to distribute your content farther than ever before on a range of available platforms. Your content must be distributed to every platform available — online, smartphones, tablets, mobile Web, social media, email, and new mediums we haven’t heard of yet. But, and this is a big but, do not make the mistake of sending all of your content to all of these platforms all of the time.

Duplicating content across platforms sends two signals to your reader. The first signal is that you’re lazy, which is not the way you want to be perceived if you’re going to make an attempt at charging a fee for the valuable service you provide. The second and more significant signal is that once readers see your content on one platform, they’re done. That’s the thing about the Internet: It’s never done. There is no back cover. So once readers receive the signal that there’s nothing new to read on a particular site (or app, or e-edition, or Twitter feed), then they move on to another source — taking their eyeballs and their wallets with them.

The goal of multiplatform news organizations in 2020 will be to have readers bookmark their site, sign up for their e-newsletter, download their app on their tablets and smartphones, like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and seek out their content in all the new ways that will be out there in 2020. You leave money on the table if you make the platform an either-or decision (either read the site or download the app, but there’s no need to do both because the content is the same).

Which content goes to which platform must be a strategic decision vetted against market research and audience data and executed by a curation editor who is a digital native and understands the inherent value and benefits of each platform. And that’s just the beginning.

The age of hyperpersonalization
A fundamental shift that will occur with news by 2020 (and is already under way at many sites) is the switch from “push” to “pull.” That is, rather than news organizations pushing their content to readers in traditional media fashion, readers will pull the content they want to consume from their favorite sources. In order to strengthen relationships with readers and provide them with an experience that keeps them coming back, news sites will have to find a way to send each individual reader exactly the content that he or she wants to see.

I’m not talking about half-heartedly targeting broad demographics. I’m talking about creating tools that will allow users to customize exactly what content they see on whichever platform they choose. Top stories and investigative pieces should remain on every edition, but topics such as high school sports coverage, local real estate, business, entertainment, and so on should be catered to the individual.

A good example already in practice is Trove, by The Washington Post. Users sign in with their Facebook account to get a customized news page. On the left is a stream of “editors’ picks” spanning politics, world affairs, the economy — all the topics that an informed citizen should know. On the right is a block of “channels,” each with a stream of stories catered to my particular interests. If I want to read more about one specific channel, I can do so. If I want to add or delete channels, I can do that too. Trove even suggests channels based on what I’ve “liked” on Facebook and recommendations from other Facebook friends who are using Trove.

Sometimes the content is from the Post, but most links direct me to other sources, bringing us back to the idea of doing what you do best and linking to the rest. Trove will even let you adjust which sources get linked to the most. It’s one place where I can read about everything that I’m interested in, and that’s why I go there many times a day. Other news sites would be wise to emulate this model, and the Post would be wise to start clogging my feed with paid advertisements.

Never stop innovating
Once 2020 arrives — and this date is not that far in the future — your newspaper (or media company, or news organization, or whatever you decide to call it) must wholeheartedly embrace change. Not begrudgingly accepting change as a necessary evil, as companies today are wont to do, but planning for, fostering, and even encouraging change.

The content model you arrive at in 2020 will be different by the time 2025 rolls around. The change that we’re living through right now will never be “done.” We’ll never get to a certain point and be able to say, “OK, this is how things will be for the next 50 years.” Change, uncertainty, and even risk must become part of the daily routine, and employees at all levels must be encouraged to contribute new ideas and suggestions.  

Job Board
Wanted: Content producers who are digitally savvy and have an eye for the future. Here are some positions you can expect to hire in 2020.

  • Entrepreneurial Journalist: Like freelancers on steroids, this new breed of professional journalists will have the business training necessary to run their own mini media empires, selling high-quality content that delivers results for a range of client publications.
  • Data Analyst: To give every story a healthy dose of context, you’ll need someone on staff who dreams in Excel spreadsheets.
  • Social Media Reporter: Keeping the feed on all those social media accounts active is a full-time job. This position also doubles as an expert voice on news stories and opinion columns pertaining to social media.
  • Web Developer: More than just a coder, this position will be the gatekeeper of your online and mobile Web portals and must also be actively involved in content curation and placement.
  • Audience Development Coordinator: You can’t create a hyperpersonalized publication if you don’t know who your readers are. This person will be gathering information constantly to make sure your company is positioned properly in the community.
  • Copyeditor/Search Optimizer: Yes, spelling and grammar are still important, but so is SEO. Headlines and content should be easy to find with a quick Google search, in addition to being precise and accurate.
  • Chief Aggregator: With the practice of doing what you do best and linking to the rest comes the necessity of this position. This position will decide which stories to link to and from which sources, keeping abreast of the issues your readers care about.
  • Content Curator: This position is responsible for determining which stories get published on which platforms.    

Tool Kit
The tools needed to produce compelling content have changed. Make sure your employees are armed and ready.

  • Smartphone (with a camera, flash, and zoom)
  • Tablet
  • HD Video Camera: Pocket-sized HD video camera with Wi-Fi or other mobile Internet access
  • Intangibles: Every content producer should have accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Digg, Reddit, etc.
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