Round and round we go: where does the online media wheel stop?

I just finished a class in cross-platform media. The idea of this class is that the world of journalism has become more than just television or print. Online media is a growing concern for any journalist working in the field. One has to know more about more to try to make a name in this industry, and even the scope of that knowledge is changing constantly. The thing is, even the media giants aren’t sure what that scope should be.

Gannett has closed seven of it broadcasting Metromix sites, including Denver and St. Louis. While Metromix.com is still operating, and the affected locations will operate under the “Express” format, the broadcast focus in these markets will cease. The operations affected had full-time staff devoted to the functionality of the site within the market. A few unconfirmed reports indicate that other locations may be shifting responsibility for the Metromix sites to other newsroom staffers.

The decision is part of a reorganization of focus on digital media by Gannett.  In October, Gannett also ceased operations on its Moms Like Me site. In the statement referred to on the blog, one of the most telling statements with regard to the world we will now have to function in is the following:

“We have to prioritize our efforts and focus on the digital products and services where we can be truly best in class. As a result, Gannett Digital has realigned its organization around product development and is focusing its resources on three key areas: (1) investing in our core news products and capabilities — building new web, mobile, and tablet products with deeply-enhanced social, video, advertising, and personalization feature sets; (2) local marketing services like DealChicken and GannettLocal to support our advertiser clients; and (3) new product development.”

Indeed, the focus on web, mobile and tablet formats is important…almost every news and entertainment outlet in the world is trying to do the same thing. One fact no one can escape is that if a company isn’t mobile, it is close to irrelevant these days. NBC has a news app, as does the New York Times. Hearst has made each of its 14 titles available in digital form on the iPad. Conde Nast is being more selective, but has even introduced a Vogue iPad app. (As someone who relishes every issue that arrives in my mailbox – from the glossy pages to the perfume ads to the ability to dog ear page after page for another visit, I may balk at this. The reality, however, is that it is necessary.) Gannett recognizes this and embraces it.

The interesting part of this statement is the focus on advertisers. Media, in whatever form, has always depended on advertisers. Subscription prices at traditional newspapers and magazines are laughable when it comes to the salaries required to operate effectively. Television can’t charge viewers to watch (I’m going with traditional news stations here.) Advertisers buy airtime and print space. The better the outlet does, the more valuable their draw to advertisers. The catch 22 in this is…without advertisers, the outlet cannot function at its peak (if you can’t pay people to work there, it is hard to get anything done.) I have worked for magazines that have lost advertisers, for whatever reason . The ones that didn’t go under had to consolidate so much that a staff of three was doing the work of a staff of 10. The result? An inferior product. The result of that? Lost market share. That result? More lost advertising. It isn’t too difficult to figure the end of that line…

To find the interesting angle of this statement, one must go back to the many discussions about how online media distribution will help the media industry. Remember those? We have all heard it: online distribution is cheaper, and given that nearly one-third of the operating cost of publications involves printing and distribution, online should take some of the financial burden off the outlet’s shoulders. Right? Not really, or so it seems. As Gannett’s statement indicates, advertisers are still the necessity, no matter what the format. Without dollars, one simply cannot pay people to do the job. Without writers, editors, designers…and even advertising salespeople (yes, they must get paid as well), there simply isn’t a product, online or otherwise. However, to be competitive for advertisers a company has to be at the top of the online game. And to do this, a company needs the best and brightest helping it emerge as a leader. Those best and brightest will come with a price tag. Where does it end?

The Gannett statement represents the real discussion in this industry right now. We are all working to put the information out there, in the best format possible. That format must provide maximum results with minimal cost. Those costs must be covered by someone. Advertisers are that someone. But, to what degree does one balance the products delivered? And how does one find a way to be valuable and relevant at minimal expense? If someone can answer that, there is infinite possibility…

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