Let’s start with fear…

This was the first day that I worried about journalism. I believe that good quality copy will rise to the top, and that simply having more streams of information won’t kill but reinvigorate journalism. I don’t suggest that I’ve joined the doomsayers completely. I have had my dimly lit candle of hope flicker.

Today in my Survey of the Internet class, we had Eric Janssen is VP Digital Media for Memphis’ daily, the Commercial Appeal speaking. He was earnest, smart and informative. I very much enjoyed hearing about his struggle to keep the CA relevant in the digital space. He’s engaged in every form of social networking, and he’s savvy about media in general.  Sadly, he may have broken my resolve about the future.

Eric talked about how the newspaper’s role as a “connective tissue” of a community transcends its printed version and should be encouraged to operate outside of its traditional sphere. I absolutely agree, but here’s the wrinkle.

When looking at the Commercial Appeal’s Facebook page, Eric asked if we thought it was journalism. I said I did not. I said that it was a very good way to promote the CA as a brand, and that it was essential to building an audience. However, no it is not journalism. To my surprise, he disagreed. His assertion is that links on the Facebook page inform the public and add journalistic value. What was implied was that a set of links on a page that the CA could not make a dime from, was as important as the printed paper or the CA’s own website.

I was baffled. I had always assumed that the goal would be to drive traffic to the CA website. Though the amount of revenue generated by online ads is small, at least its real. Numbers also drives it, so if you can get your traffic up the possibility of generating some revenue is improved.

What Eric was talking about was branding. He is suggesting that the newspaper is not really a newspaper anymore, but a news service. The Commercial Appeal is not a news site, it’s a brand whose credibility needs to be expanded into local web space. These things are all true. But, if the brand represents nothing more than credibility, what is the point?

The idea of Facebook, Twitter and the like is not just communication, but promotion. The CA’s Facebook page should be a vehicle for the promotion of the paper and by extension, the website. If it isn’t, to what advantage does it offer a cash-strapped industry and newspaper? Having a successful Facebook page is not the point of an online department.

After a few calls with some at the paper, a picture became clear. The online department does not really see itself as part of the newspaper at all. In effect, the online division is a branch of PR.

That may not sound like a big deal, but lets put it in context. There is a division within a struggling metro daily who’s mission should be to bridge a path to future revenue, and it not only does it have no plan to do so but it isn’t even interested in that as a mission.

If the CA has decided that its online department is not in the business of managing or creating content then it has already signed its death notice. The online department needs to be aggressive in the social media space but it cannot be at the expense of the product. There is no brand to promote if there is nothing to sell.

If a newspaper wants to transition itself for the future, it has to change its entire mindset. The online department should exist to augment the content already there as well as spread it to the web. The goal should not only be one of cheerleader. It should be the role of a newspapers website to try and contribute to the betterment of not just the brand, but the whole set of underpinnings that allow it to exist.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Let’s start with fear…

  1. Kip

    That’s a problem with most media. News stations do the same thing with their web departments. At FOX13 we even eliminated a web position during some layoffs. WTH. The other problem arising in media is that the feeling of being there to promote a brand and not create content is taking over not just web departments but the entire operation. News decisions are made based on “the brand” and not the quality of the story. Content is no longer the important focus. Instead, selling the content is important.
    I go to restaraunts that don’t advertise because if they can survive without having to talk people into eating there, I figure they survive because they’re good. I don’t go to Chili’s because it’s lame and the food sucks. They try to sell the food instead of letting the food sell itself.
    This is what is happening to news media. As a working in a promotions department at a local news station, I am forever having to take subpar content and sell it to an audience. As time goes on it gets harder and harder to convince people to continue watching. Eventually I’m going to lose my job, not because I do a bad job but instead, because people will have figured out that Tsunami is a place with really good food.

    • great insight.
      Brand is important. The Commercial Appeal’s name must mean SOMETHING if they’re going to continue as the main hub of news in Memphis. You and I agree though, if there’s no good content what is there to sell?

  2. Pingback: On Timing « Essays for Nobody

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