Why traditional publishers can't soothe the crying baby

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Morning coffee and The Guardian on iPad

I feel rather bad for my colleagues in the national newspaper business this morning. As they trek into their plush central London office, sipping their lattes1, they find the world predicting their doom and destruction.

Frédéric Filloux treads a familiar path, contrasting the transitional newspaper approach to selling their stories online (“content marketing”, if you insist on jargon) with that of the tech-based news publisher and aggregators:

The essence of what we’re seeing here is a transfer of value. Original stories are getting very little traffic due to the poor marketing tactics of old-fashion publishers. But once they are swallowed by the HuffPo’s clever traffic-generation machine, the same journalistic item will make tens or hundred  times better traffic-wise. Who is right?  Who can look to the better future in the digital world ? Is it the virtuous author carving language-smart headlines or the aggregator generating eye-gobbling phrases thanks to high tech tools?  Your guess.

Snappy end to a piece, sure enough. But also, a bit of a false dichotomy, n’est pas?. In theory, the traditional news publishers could learn from the attention tactics of the aggregators a great deal more easily than the aggregators could staff up a full-blown journalism operation. When it comes to the survival of top-flight reporting, it might be time to start holding your nose, and using some more aggressive attention techniques…

That’s not what the big publishers are doing, though, is it? They’re busy chasing new dreams of a sustainable future. They’re just, well, not very committed to them… Here’s Mr Rick Waghorn, talking about The Guardian‘s repeated switches from local, to the US, to Open Journalism as its saviour business model:

Pivoting your product into new market-places every 12 months is, indeed, classic start-up behaviour – but only of those start-ups that, basically, don’t know what they’re doing. Or who or what they are trying to be.

My former employer went through this sort of process, switching from funnel marketing, to lead generation to data services as its saviour business model over the course of six years. That’s a new business model every two years for those keeping track…

I have, for fairly obvious reasons, been reading a lot of books on the subject of baby care in recent months. One of the most oft quoted pieces of advice is that often parents fail to soothe crying babies, because they don’t keep going with the soothing activity long enough. Too many publishing businesses feel like desperate parents, trying the next new thing to soothe the wails of their failing business model, and then chucking it away when the results aren’t immediate and overwhelming.

But then (let’s push this metaphor hard) they had a placid little baby for decades, who suddenly developed bad colic one evening. They had no experience and no practice in this situation. It must be hard to switch from managing incremental improvements on a long-established business model to an environment of disruption, change and innovation, especially when you look down your nose of the tactics of those who are succeeding…

1* Why is it so easy to use lattes as opposed to any other form of coffee when you want to lightly mock a group of people? What is it about this weak, milky form of caffeine delivery vehicle that makes it inherently humorous?*

aggregationbusiness modelscontent marketingdisruptionJournalismpublishersPublishingrbiThe Guardian

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.