As I was winding down my weekend last night I caught a headline that rang alarm bells in my journalist brain: that a Wall Street-backed media company was making a bid for Gannett’s local media empire.
What’s that mean?
Basically, it means one cut-throat media biz might be eaten by an even colder operator, and your ability to remain informed about what’s going on around you is going to suffer.
I have no love for Gannett. The way it does business is a case study on how to screw over over both readers and shareholders.
Things I didn’t imagine when I first entered journalism: the business would get so bad, Gannett would be viewed by all of us as an outfit worthy of defending. https://t.co/8lHEUoErOs
— Helaine Olen (@helaineolen) January 14, 2019
Gannett owns both of the papers in my home media market of Detroit and they’ve both been awful ever since I can remember.
For an example of how bad, read the headline below and let me know when you figure out what it means.
does this hed not say that five died from a jet sliding off the taxiway, or am i insane https://t.co/r2vfE34Bdi
— Ryan Felton (@ryanfelton) January 13, 2019
It leaves an awful taste in my mouth to think that a media company whose message to shareholders has been all about cost-cutting is facing competition from another media company with a reputation for cutting costs.
The focus on reducing expenses misses the point of local journalism as a business.
Think about the tweet embedded above. That headline is poorly written, and it’s what every Detroit Free Press and Detroit News headline reads like. It’s what happens when you don’t invest in your people and demand they do more with less—get clicks, do good work and make the advertisers happy. It’s impossible to serve three masters.
Without investment in good talent and resources, you start to shovel crap, readers stop caring, your hope of them buying digital subscriptions or clicking on your ads goes to hell, and you’re screwed on all fronts.
So what would Digital First Media do if it bought out Gannett? Fire all these journalists and bring in folks who will work at half the cost? That model isn’t working already, there’s no reason to think that more of it would work.
What could work is a total focus on the reader. If papers were writing really good content that cut out the stuffy aloofness that leads to headlines like in the above tweet, if they really engaged with you on their level, you would pay for that.
Papers could take a page from their local alt-weeklies and from the rise of sponsored content online: you want your news to engage with you on your level, and advertisers want to speak to you that way too. Old-school reporters, if there are any of them left, would probably rather die than express an opinion in their copy, but they can take their chances with these media moguls if they want to stick with their principles.
I write all this because I know the chances for young people to get full-time media jobs are evaporating, and you still need to know what’s going on around you. There’s a huge need for relevant news that traditional media isn’t filling. Something’s gotta give.
I see two roads out of this:
1. More of the same. Digital First buys Gannett, cuts costs at a hundred local papers, they continue to suck and people stop reading. Traditional media dies a slow death.
2. Radical change. This doesn’t mean a pivot to video. This means changing media’s relationship to people—speaking in a voice you can relate to that informs you about the complex things that affect you. Media orgs go all-in on subscriptions and people pay for news and insight they find valuable.
Our mandate here at The Basis Point is that you need a consumer finance media org that speaks to and for you. We’re just getting started—follow along by hitting one of the buttons below.