The Twitter streams of our statewide news media are full of the sad Friday news of more layoffs at the Providence Journal. I wonder if some of the resulting commentary, though, isn’t missing the key signals of the media market. Here’s WPRI’s Ted Nesi:
However diminished, @Projo still matters. A LOT.
Front-page placement continues to carry weight. Look at @kathyprojo speaker story today: it’s the buzz of RI politics, driving talk radio, sure to feature in the weekend roundups etc.
It’s a revenue problem – not a reach problem.
This looks at the state’s daily newspaper in the same way a politician might think of it. The Providence Journal can still get a story out there, but if “reach” is going to mean anything like “readers,” that’s not what’s important. Where it matters, “reach” would be the number of people who actually look at the paper or its associated Web site… and the ads. In reality, the Providence Journal’s reach is moving toward (although a long way off from) what I used to say of Anchor Rising: We didn’t have a mainstream audience, but we could get information in front of decision makers and media figures who could put it in front of their own audiences. That’s great if your goal is to affect the public debate as a hobby or for some other reason, but not if it’s to make a living.
Rhode Island Public Radio’s Ian Donnis followed up Nesi’s tweet with one of his own:
I echo Ted. I start my day by reading @projo, Much respect for Kathy + her colleagues including @AmandaMilkovits @mooneyprojo @kmulvane @lborgprojocom @PatrickAnderso_ newcomers like @bamaral44 @Kevprojo @madeleine_list + other people I’ve not mentioned
I can’t say the same. I start my day scrolling through hundreds of headlines and brief summaries via an RSS feed. Given my areas of interest, many of those are from the Providence Journal, and I’ve got access to its content if I need more detail, but most people don’t need that level of detail, and if they want it, other local reporters, talk hosts, and bloggers will provide (for free) the details that their own audiences believe are key.
A trade magazine may “reach” a lot of people in that it affects how manufacturers make the products that they ultimately buy, but few consumers will know the magazine exists. In that sense of direct demand, the market is simply not big enough for what the Projo is selling. That means it must broaden its audience by expanding either the what or the how of its offerings.
On the “what” side, the paper has been conspicuously unwilling to break out of a standard mainstream-liberal vision of what content it should provide. If, for example, it had hired somebody for a “conservative beat,” many of the people whom I know who’ve decided that the Providence Journal offers them nothing… and no reason to support its business model out of a sense of civic obligation… would still be subscribers. We can’t be the only submarket that has fallen away.
On the “how” side, when outlets like the Providence Journal try to compete with other media, they tend to assign the task to their people. But radio talk hosts and podcasters aren’t simply journalists with microphones. They have different talents, skills, and ways of doing things. If the Providence Journal were to expand its multimedia, the reason shouldn’t be to have its reporters catch the latest trend, but to have the corporation capture more of the product cycle. Talk radio companies aren’t going to send the Providence Journal royalty checks for their service, so the Providence Journal must use the resources of the newspaper to build a competitive offering that splits the profit with the journalism wing.
Faced with that challenge, the other media outlets would have to do something similar in the other direction — building out their journalistic capacity. All this competition would play out in one of two ways. Under one scenario, a smaller number of companies would dominate the market and provide more of the state’s media needs. Under a second scenario (probably the healthiest and most fruitful), all of the companies would offer unique content across their own multimedia, and the total spending on media in the state would increase because people would have reason to subscribe to or advertise with more than one. (In cutting the cable cord, I didn’t pick one content provider but subscribed to multiple and buy from others à la carte.)
Unfortunately, reluctance to expand markets and compete with established local institutions will probably ensure that we come to something like the same place, but in a shrunken market, rather than an expanded one. The point will come that the Providence Journal isn’t providing other information outlets with the content that they monetize, so they’ll have to do it themselves, and rather than competing on quality local content, they’ll compete on easy trash (digging for scandals in any organization with more than one member) or on standardized national offerings.
In brief, the point is this: Competition is cooperative, and that applies ideologically as well as in the marketplace. Misunderstanding or resisting fundamental principles like these may be the origin of our media woes.