Towards the end of the movie Forrest Gump, the title character sets off on a jog for thousands of miles across the country. Along the way, people attach meaning to this act, and a few dozen hearty folks follow him on the run.
Then, for no reason at all, he simply stops and says, "I’m pretty tired, I think I’ll go home now."
The crowd behind him stands confused and empty, asking "now what are we supposed to do?" And this is the state of media today.
The Risk and Reward of Blazing a New Path
We all follow something. It’s easy, and there are many reasons to do so. One example: following a sports team. As the baseball season started last week, I’d see Facebook status updates such as "The game did not go as I would have liked, but we are still the Yankees…" This, written by a fan. Because of his belief in the team, he genuinely feels a part of the team. It is an identity that we co-opt and use for our own purposes.
The people jogging behind Forrest Gump made up their own beliefs as to why he was doing it and what it meant if they joined him. But they were following a false idol, and had not built their own path to achieve the beliefs they were trying to get closer to.
As a movement builds, it becomes easier to follow along without negative consequences; Easier to continue doing what is known, than challenge assumptions or revisit how practices do (or don’t) match up to the stated mission.
As those in newspapers, magazines, and book publishing are facing a similar situation. They had been following a well blazed path for their entire career, and now suddenly, that path has splintered off in a thousand directions. They can no longer follow Forrest Gump, they are left standing in the middle of the desert to choose their own way forward, each filled with risk and potential.
Google is the Problem But the iPad is the Solution?
How backwards is this? Who is to blame for the situation that media is in? Google? Readers? What some fail to understand is that this is not a "media" problem, this is a "value" problem. Value to your market and value to your partners. If advertisers don’t find enough value to spend money with you, then it’s not Google’s fault. If your audience is finding it easier to receive news/information/solutions via others means, it is your job to develop products to meet those behaviors and needs.
Especially for business media, this is about driving business and careers forward. The job of media is to serve the needs of a market, not for the market to change their behavior to serve the needs of media.
What if publishers successfully sued Google, and Google itself shut down and no other search engine could ever again crawl & aggregate media’s content. Would THAT serve the audience’s goals? Is that how media will help their market grow? Or is that simply how the market can help media grow?
Oftentimes, we focus too much on the technology and not enough on behavior & solutions. Too much on ‘stuff’ and not enough on people. And this is the lesson from Google Buzz:
The hard part is not the technology, but serving people’s needs.
The hype around Google Buzz was deafening. And yet, no one talks about it any more, and barely anyone I know uses it. It’s not a question of whether it works better or not, it’s a question of existing networks, value propositions and behavior. Betamax was better than VHS by any measure, and yet VHS won out.
Media brands and the vague entity of ‘journalism’ is facing the same uphill battle. What we end up with is an echo chamber of media reporting on media, trying to find consensus, all while innovators lap them on the track.
Why Doesn’t Anyone Talk About Classified Ad Revenue Anymore?
All of the discussions around monetizing journalism via newspapers and magazines seem to indicate that we need to ditch Google and get back to the ‘good old days’ when journalism itself had an inherent value and earned money.
But for many newspapers, classified revenue supported much of the operation. In the 40’s and 50’s and 60’s and 70’s and 80’s and 90’s, newspapers and magazines competed with real time news – on TV and radio. And yet, the printed page survived.
But taking classified revenue out of the mix really hobbled newspapers. Then, a decline in ad revenue, print subsriptions, newsstand sales, all added to the decline.
That 25 cents or 60 cents that you paid for a newspaper on the street back in 1991 wasn’t paying for the entirety of a news operation – likely it barely covered one aspect of production and delivery. The real money was in classifieds and in ad rates due to access to an audience & channel that were VERY hard to find.
Now, Craigslist owns classifieds, and EVERYONE has access to the audience, or at least, it has become cheap to build an audience if you have a great idea and some gumption.
Looking For a Leader in All the Wrong Places
The iPad will not save media. Nor will Twitter or eBooks or any other gadget. Leadership will save media. Leadership to blaze a path, to see a need and make an effort to CREATE, not just ‘take a stand’ against things like Google.
What does this mean for you personally? It means you are a product developer now. Even if you are a copy editor, you are now a product developer. This is not a "responsibility," this is an opportunity. One that your competition will gladly take if you pass it by.
Leading is a funny thing. Here is a GREAT 3 minute video lesson in leadership, which illustrates the value of followers as well:
We have to lead. We have to listen. We have to provide. We have to become leaders in our own right, not just follow an established system that was created decades ago and no longer works as well as it once did. Forrest Gump had no ideals as to why he ran, just as classified revenue had no ideals for itself even though it supported newspapers. It just did it’s thing, and everyone else created ‘meaning’ around it.
I love journalists and editors and folks in media because of their passion for what they do. And right now, we have an opportunity to serve those beliefs in new ways. What we have to realize is this:
Standing in that desert road, with no direction home, this is an opportunity.
Clearly, I don’t have the answers, and quite frankly, no one does. But it’s always helpful to bounce ideas off of someone else. If there is any way you think I can help, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow me on Twitter: @DanBlank