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When your local newspaper embraces digital first

I had a thought during lunch yesterday as I was poring over my Twitter feed. Actually two thoughts. One was about how two nights ago, along with the rest of the world it seemed, I had been following Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster of the Texas anti-abortion legislation. In turn that inspired a thought about the competition that the newly-minted Oregon Media Group, the digital-first-focused company that will publish the Oregonian newspaper, now faces in a modern variegated media universe.

Let me explain. But first, here’s an article about the Texas filibuster non-coverage by Cable TV news channels.

Cable News Drops the Ball on Texas Abortion Protest Coverage

“If you wanted live coverage of the dramatic filibuster of anti-abortion legislation in Texas last night, the best thing you could do was turn off your television and jump online. Neither CNN nor Fox News nor MSNBC carried special coverage during the lengthy public shouting-down of the bill, which would have restricted abortions in the state to 20 weeks or prior and would have required all abortion clinics to be registered as surgical centers, effectively shutting down most of them (MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow did devote a segment on her primetime show to the filibuster, incorporating footage from the senate’s own internal network).”

So, “turn off your TV and jump online…” Jumping online was the method that hundreds of thousands of people chose, and not necessarily because Cable wasn’t covering what a very large audience segment felt was very important news. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr all erupted. YouTube had more than 180,000 livestream viewers at the filibuster’s peak. And those social platform users and YouTube viewers were checking in from all over the globe – in other words the audience was enormous. It’s those eyeballs and the resulting clicks that the OMG wants and needs. (That acronym would be funny if things weren’t so serious.)

And what did OMG via supply? An Associated Press newsfeed article posted at 9:24PM that evening. It didn’t exactly compete with this.

I know it seems rather uncouth to be harping on about a company that’s trying to turn things around, but there is vindication amongst all of the reports and press releases I’ve read that came from official sources – either at the executive level or in the various media outlets led by the Oregonian’s publisher. Especially this one – “Our print products will be driven by our digital focus,” The Oregonian’s publisher and president N. Christian Anderson III said in a staffwide meeting Thursday morning. “More than ever, we’re going to be a digital-first company.”

In my mind digital-first is a very large and complex construct. Giving editors titles such as VP of Content or managing producer, and creating stories full of search engine bait, while giving staff smartphones to capture video to help drive web traffic, is not a recipe for success. Being digital-first from top to bottom in the enterprise, requires starting with deep strategy, a lot of testing and analyzing, and a strong focus on the user. Clearly the company has not been applying the strategic methodology I mention. If it had it would not have launched such an awful product as this.

The new company’s VP of Content, Peter Bhatia, is presumably working with his team of content providers and keyword strokers, formally known as journalists and reporters, to keep the Oregon Media Group’s digital properties populated with up-to-the-minute breaking news. This content, according to information provided by the O’s publisher, will then be fed into The Oregonian newspaper, that will now be delivered to subscribers only four days a week.

The driving motive behind these changes is clearly monetary. Not delivering the paper to subscribers on those other three days a week will save the company millions of dollars apparently. (I presume at least subscribers will see a reduction in the price of their subscription.) But here’s the gamble: If the O loses the loyalty of its current statewide readers, who may well be unhappy with having to search out the paper on those three days of non-delivery, and they cancel their subscriptions and do not attempt to navigate the user-unfriendly and the soon-to-be-renamed MyDigitalO, they will most likely lose more advertising dollars as there will be less people looking at those ads. It seems to be a risk-all strategy with the owners wanting their cake and eating it too. None of this augers well for the O’s future.

In the end the Oregon Media Group’s competition may not be what it thinks it is. Its new competition will be subscribers, advertisers, web-savvy users, a mobile audience, and users-on-the-scene posting smartphone video to all social platforms, to name a few. Also Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and YouTube will continue to be the preferred platforms, especially for young people, for getting the news and sharing it.

One answer to the O’s decline might have been to actually focus on the printed product. Increase the amount of investigative journalism and reporting, deliver more long-form stories and articles, and raise its quality and value in the eyes of the subscriber. Make it a product worth buying in other words. Then charge for access to a user-friendly website, perhaps based on the New York Times model where the first ten articles come free. (And a tip – apps are not a requirement.)

Chasing clicks and optimizing stories for SEO is so 1990′s.

The curse of knowledge strikes again.


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