‘Ego gets in the way of common sense’: Confessions of a recovering media consultant

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Most traditional media are in big trouble, but they don’t know it, or choose not to acknowledge it, according to our latest Digiday Confessions, in which we exchange anonymity for candor. So says a former consultant based on years in the trenches trying to help such publishers modernize. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Are publishers screwed?
The unfortunate answer is they are, and they’re screwing themselves.

They made their business for so long where distribution was a cornered or relatively closed market. There was a limited amount of competitive distribution. There was a much higher barrier for entry. They lost their position that allowed them to be voice of authority and insiders. That screws them because they’re big organizations designed to leverage those positions.

Why couldn’t they pivot?
Two factors. So much of their money and prestige was coming from their traditional business. The second reason is that they won’t understand. The person with five newspapers knows what he has to do but is motivated by the fact that he is the publisher of five newspapers and makes $3 million a year.

What advice would you give them?
If you’re a daily newspaper, don’t publish every day of the week. There’s no economic reason to do so. A lot of the daily editions lose money. Editors are saying, if we don’t publish every day, we don’t have the influence you need. But people will find your product online. And you stripped your newsroom bare already. Ego gets in the way of common sense.

After ego, what’s hurting them?
Unrealistic expectations. Take local advertising. It’s a lot of work for almost no return. There’s no profit. It’s impossible to make money on the $500 advertiser. Why are you going to do a better job than Google? You’re not. But they’re afraid to forego a source of revenue. None have been able to tap the local market. You’d present these guys with data about how something was not going to work or have a bad outcome and they’d do it anyway.

Will video save them?
If you have scale and live video, it can help you, but in the end, it’s a horrible user experience. If you don’t have scale, you can create quality video, but you’re not going to be the video choice of record because you can’t create any scale. It can’t scale because traditional publishers can’t seem to grasp, companies like BuzzFeed and Business Insider spend as much time in distribution issues as production issues. They realized the real work starts after the production finishes. For the nontraditional ones, for every dollar I spend in production I should spend one in distributing. In traditional, it’s 25 cents for the dollar. They can’t rationalize the investment. They haven’t learned the game and don’t want to hire the people to do it.

So they’re way behind.
Newspapers have a charter of being right and early, but the new media organization is about getting the most popular information to the top.

How do they fix the fact that people don’t want their product as much anymore?
The best major paper is a niche product. Some say it’s not worth fixing the supply issue if you can’t fix the demand issue. The part newspapers don’t get is the people who want a serious voice are a niche audience. They don’t know how to compete to be a popular product. And they’re not. Newspapers should come to gripes with the fact that they’re niche products.


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