Vince Veselosky

Author of Awesome Fantasy

Content Is Not Your Product: Why Newspapers Fail

January 30, 2010

Your newspaper is Seth Godin's Meatball Sundae — full of valuable stuff, but not a product anyone wants to buy.

I hear the same sentiment from executives all over the media industry, and especially from newspapers. “We deserve to get paid for our content.”

Dear Media Executives: You’re doing it wrong!

The reason so many newspapers are sinking, shrinking, or stinking is that they have totally forgotten what the source of value for their business really is. Somehow they got confused by the 20th century mass production model and deluded themselves into thinking of content as a product that they package and sell.

The business of media has never been about production of anything. Not newspapers. Not radio waves. Not content. The business of media is about connecting people. It’s about building relationships.

Content is just a tool we use to build relationships.

When you treat content as a product, your focus is placed on the transaction, and the relationship gets ignored. A transaction, in isolation, does nothing to establish a relationship, to build trust. That trust, that relationship, is what makes the attention of your readers (or viewers or listeners) so valuable to advertisers. Without it, you are just a commodity, and business will go to the lowest bidder. This is the reason that ads are becoming less effective and CPMs are dropping.

The reason we produce content is to establish that trusting relationship with our community by providing them with something valuable for free. I intentionally use the word “community” and not “audience” here, because audience implies that we talk and they listen. In the 21st century more than ever, the relationship we as media companies have with our community has to go both ways. We must also listen and help others be heard. These activities are essential to establish a trusting relationship.

Many newspaper executives are up in arms about falling subscription revenues, and want to replace that revenue by charging for content online. But they are missing the point. Subscription revenue was never an end in itself, it was a proxy for measuring the value of the relationships we had created. Newspapers don’t necessarily need to replace that revenue, but they do need a new way to measure the value of the relationships they maintain. I don’t think charging for access to web sites serves that goal.

The language we use around advertising is broken as well. We talk about selling inventory and picking up remnants, as if communication were a physical good. But what we are really doing is facilitating conversations between businesses in our community and their (potential) customers. The conversations we enable create value for the whole community, some of which we capture as revenue.

The mass market, mass media mindset has run rampant over our community institutions. Our local media (newspaper, TV, and radio alike), now seem to be more concerned with attracting eyeballs than with helping people. Eyeballs have very little value. People have uncountable value. And when people are being treated as a commodity, they notice. They don’t like it. They take their eyeballs elsewhere.

As media, we talk, we listen, and we facilitate conversations. These three activities taken together are the essence of a media business. Take heed, old media. Talking is not a product, no matter how valuable it is what you are saying. If all your business does is talk, you will fail. If you want to succeed, then establish trust and build relationships in your community.