It’s the Content Stupid! (Feat. Seth Godin)

You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are changin’
– Bob Dylan

How did you find out and follow-up on the Icelandic volcano news or the latest weather report? By flipping through yesterday’s news in Rainforest format? Or by surfing, clicking and chatting? The internet and e-books have radically changed the way we consume news and process information. And now that e-books are going mainstream the complete printing industry is at stake.

Belgian media is going through a dip and just like our government they are frozen and hypnotized. Or should I say paralyzed by fear? It must be downright daunting to be working in the newspaper business nowadays.

There are three strategies you can adopt in order to cope with this shift: hang on to the past, extrapolate the present or completely abandon everything you know about newspapers and embrace the new media as a starting point. But first things first: where are we now?

To Print or Not to Print?

Let’s address the practical problems that may occur when you switch over to e-books: like getting your book autographed by your favorite author; Seth Godin for example.

So it’s time for another SOS VideoClass (with my own Flemish accent ;-) – subtitled in English) this time featuring Seth Godin. The video was taken at the Flanders DC a-head of marketing conference on April 1st 2010. You will find the transcript below.

It’s remarkable to see how many people still buy a newspaper to read yesterday’s news. Or a book on paper. Nowadays, technology enables us to read newspapers – or rather the news you find in there – and books anywhere and at any moment.

I am holding an example of an e-book and this device can cater for more than a thousand books. And also the news that will appear in tomorrow’s newspapers is on here in portable format. I can take it with me anywhere I go, so there is no need for me to buy the news on paper or a book on paper.

It’s about the content and that is something we seem to have forgotten. It’s not about the paper. Paper is just a medium to bring the content to reader. A means. Not an end by itself.

With an e-book it can be difficult when you are at a book fair and you want to have your book autographed by the author. When the paper has disappeared, where should the signature go? That’s what we will be trying out tonight because marketing guru Seth Godin happens to speak here tonight in the Elisabeth Hall. He will be presenting his latest book Linchpin. I’ve downloaded the book on here and we will be heading towards him. We are going to ask him for an autograph and see how he reacts.

To my delight Seth is happy to sign the e-book (on the backside that is), thereby adding: “sure, before it becomes obsolete and is replaced by an iPad or something else”.

Our problem is solved for the time being. But what about the newspaper industry and the book industry? Newspapers and books will be breathing the same nostalgia as an LP does today. They are surrounded with a certain warmth and charm but they no longer cater for employment. Employment is no longer included in the physical product, neither in the distribution. Tomorrow’s employment will come from original content and from the way we gather an audience.

And that is the reason why we have positioned the lifebuoy right behind me, on the skeleton of a whale. This whale symbolizes the Belgian Newspaper industry.

There is at present no Belgian newspaper on this device. It’s about the content. No longer about the paper!

Strategy 1: Hanging on to the Past

The first strategy for coping with this new reality it is to cover our ears and eyes. To quote Seth Godin from his latest book Linchpin: “There’s no shortage of panic and no shortage of people willing to rearrange the truth to preserve their vision of the world as they’d like it to be.”

This is where most newspapers and magazines are today: Do nothing unless the competition forces you to. Paper is the main business and the internet, well… because we have to.

So lets see … subscriptions give access to the full content online and a big archive of … yesterday’s and last year’s news.  See, internet entrepreneurship isn’t that hard; just copy your competitor’s model and you are safe!

Here is what this looks like from a NY Times perspective.

Small detail though: the paper subscriptions keep declining and the online content isn’t generating any business. It’s only costing them lots and lots of money. So CEO’s freeze, like a deer looking into the headlights of an approaching car. Unfortunately, this car is unstopable.

Strategy 2: Extrapolating the Present

But there are also brave souls, the newspapers that realize that e-books are the future. They know the printing industry will go out of business pretty soon.

The Wall Street Journal for example.

Unfortunately, these companies can’t get rid of their attachment to a the newspaper in the current producer-consumer balance. As a result they just digitalize the newspaper. Here’s how that goes: they still produce ‘today’s issue’ by buffering all the stories of the past 24 hours, editing the complete issue and then releasing it digitally by making it downloadable for their readers.

However… it’s still yesterday’s news. Seth Godin refers to this second strategy as Nostalgia for the future: “You’ve fallen in love with a described outcome, and at every stage along the way, it appears that hope and will and effort on your part might be able to maintain the future quo”.

Abandoning print means discovering and doing away with all the constraints of print that have become habits. The online newspaper of  18 April 2013 will not be a ‘today’s issue’. “Issue” is a constraint by paper that turned into a habit. Guess what: newspapers are no longer the sole provider of information. In 2010 access to information is the default – no brownie points anymore in there.

Strategy 3: The Future From Scratch

There is a bright future for newspapers but it will require the captains of the newspaper industry to abandon all attachment to the brownie points they have earned in the past – in fact this is the crux of what is holding them back: a Pavlovian reward scheme that rewards whatever was good performance before the internet age.

Thomas Baekdal, an internet entrepreneur from Scandinavia, has a clear vision on the future of newspapers and magazines. According to Baekdal, we no longer have a problem of ‘getting’ information. Instead we need help in making sense of information. And that is where the social aspect of information is crucial.

Unfortunately, there are only few newspapers that really understand this. Traditionally, publishing is a one-way street from the producer to the consumer. But the consumer is saturated and needs help in making sense of it all.

On his website Baekdal drafted what we could call ‘ten commandments’ for debunking the digital magazine. They are:

1. Stop thinking print.
2. Stop thinking distribution. You are in direct contact with your readers.
3. Stop thinking magazine. You are not selling a magazine. You are selling truly amazing stories.
4. Stop thinking animation and effects. Start thinking a better way to tell a story.
5. Start sharing.
6. Start growing a tribe. Do you allow people to be a part of the articles, instead of merely readers?
7. Get content to where people are.
8. Start linking content together (as opposed to “tables of contents”)
9. Start thinking niche. If you want to cover five wildly different topics, create five widely different magazines.
10. Stop thinking that you have to deliver something big. Like Seth Godin, Baekdal states that the future of publishing is like social media – It is not an event. It is a process!

The Huffington Post understands this. They bring news and then they link news to opinions. When you visit the Huffington Post you will note that there is no such thing as ‘today’s issue’. To them it’s all ‘Breaking News and Opinions’. No old habits and no one-way publishing. They are not profitable because they bring news. They thrive because they make sense and because they have a distribution model that goes both ways.

So this is to the Belgian captains of the publishing industry boat. What shall we do with the drunken sailor?

Strategy 1: get drunk too?

Strategy 2: navigate on the old map (the one without the iceberg)?

Strategy 3: listen and adjust your course accordingly?

Your move.

Take responsibility.