From institutions to individuals: Media, the Internet and us

(The following was written for our employee newsletter, but inthe interests of transparency I thought I’d share it with our audienceas well, to give a sense of where we’re headed.)

When I was in journalism school everybody wanted to work at theToronto Star or the Globe and Mail. Nobody mentioned trade magazines. Inever knew they existed until I applied for a staff writer job atComputer Dealer News, and I was confused when I couldn’t find a copy onthe newsstand.

The old idea was that you joined an august institution like anational newspaper or magazine because, by writing for it, you’d beread by a large, important audience. Trade magazines may not have aslarge an audience, but the Internet has broadened their reach andreinforced the value of providing the kind of news and information thathighly specialized readers – IT managers and solution providers, in ourcase – wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. So even if they aren’tmentioned often in journalism schools, organizations like IT WorldCanada are as important to their communities as the Toronto Star is toTorontians.

The Internet changed something else, though: it has eroded the ideaof media as institutions. As well-known newspapers and magazinesstruggle to succeed online, they find themselves suddenly incompetition with individual bloggers who wield surprisingly largeinfluence, or online magazines that achieve enormous results with onlya few staff, some smart aggregation and great SEO ingenuity.

Apart from the people working for them, these media institutionswere represented by the magazine covers or front pages of newspapers,or more recently the home page of their Web sites. But as more peoplefind news and information through search engines, the home page willbecome less and less important. Even here at IT World it accounts foronly a small portion of our overall traffic. We need to start thinkingless about the front page and more about individual article pages – howwell they represent not only the story being told but the way they helpinvite readers to navigate to other stories or areas of our Web site.

Rather than disappearing completely, I think media institutions willevolve to become like a club (a.k.a. community) of talentedindividuals. A good example of what this might look like is True/Slant,a startup run by a former AOL exec that is taking an inventive approachto developing editorial resources. The following is an excerpt from a recent Wall Street Journal article from Walt Mossberg:

True/Slant is launching with 65 journalists, or “knowledge experts,”assigned to specific topics. Each of these contributors gets a page tohouse their journalism and, it is hoped, an active social network offollowers who will regularly discuss the articles they read there. Eachpage also will feature headlines of stories elsewhere on the Webselected by the contributors. These “headline grabs” link back to theoriginating outside site. Readers can go directly to the page of theirfavorite contributor, but the site’s home page will knit togetherpopular content and contributors, and each reader will be able to trackmultiple topics and contributors through a streaming feed called “I’mfollowing.” The journalists are paid a small amount, but the plan is toturn them into minipublishers under the True/Slant umbrella. They willbe offered a share of the advertising and sponsorship revenues theirindividual pages generate and, in some cases, equity in True/Slant,which is backed by venture capital.

This is a scary concept for a lot of journalists, relying as it doeson more of a freelance-style relationship with the media organization,and using the kind of commission-based compensation structure that’stypical of a sales department than editorial. And the truth is it maynot pan out. Attracting an audience is often hard work, involving helpfrom marketing, circulation and other departments, and journalists havenormally better at writing or editing than they are promoting theirstories (or themselves) like a business person would push a product.It’s also possible to manipulate traffic and attract the wrong kind ofaudience without attracting a lot of attention to yourself. Qualitycontrol becomes difficult.

Media institutions like ours will have to ensure we do enough on ourend to make being part of our community attractive, just as journalistswill have to work harder at building their own personal “brand.” Thatmeans figuring out what kinds of stories you tell best, how you cantell them differently, and how you can find the kind of community thatwill appreciate reading, watching or contributing to it. We used to saythat it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Now it’s not only whatyou know AND who you know. It’s who you are, too.

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