The fourth post of the Model for the 21st Century Newsroom looks at how distribution is changing from a push/pull model to a tripartite, push-pull-pass, one.
In the 20th century, commercial distribution of news was relatively straightforward: if you worked in print, you published a newspaper or magazine at a particular time, it was transported to outlets, and people picked it up (or it was delivered). If you worked in broadcast, you broadcast it at a particular time, and people watched or listened.
In the 21st century, the picture is a little more complicated.
It’s widely recognised that we are all journalists now, and anyone can be a publisher. But less widely publicised is the fact that, at the same time, and for the same reasons, everyone is a paperboy now.
Perhaps that’s because it’s not quite so glamorous.
Nevertheless, it’s a crucial factor in news production to consider. Whereas traditional news publishing and Fordist production processes separated journalism (newsgathering, newswriting, editing), publishing (printing) and distribution (transportation, postage, broadcasting), those areas are blurred in a new media world because we can perform all three functions with the same action. As an online journalist I can gather and write up information, publish it and distribute it, sometimes with a single click.
This creates two problems:
Firstly, an online journalist is not typically trained in distribution. An understanding – or at least, exploration – of distribution, therefore, is needed – because everything they do as a journalist, online, is actually an act of distribution.
Secondly, the news organisation typically does not devote the same resources to online distribution as it does to physical distribution – and when it does, it does so in an uneven manner. Organisational distribution (tactical, intentional) should be different to journalistic acts of distribution (incidental).
The distribution model for the 21st century newsroom, then, seeks to explicitly identify the range of distribution networks, before looking at how those affect the other two parts of the production chain: journalism and publishing.
The diagram below illustrates how new media combines the distribution models of print and broadcast – ‘picking up’ and ‘tuning in’ – and adds a third: ‘passing on’. We can cutely abbreviate this to the helpful mnemonic ‘Pull-Push-Pass’. I’m going to deal with examples of each of the three – their strengths and weaknesses – in turn.
The printed newspaper is not the only format that can be distributed by people picking it up. An obvious equivalent online is the PDF newspaper, typically executed as nothing more than a download of the newspaper - although some notable examples have tried to do more interesting things with the technology, such as regularly updating them throughout the day, or producing editions for a specific area, such as finance, and incorporating multimedia.
The PDF newspaper appears to combine some advantages of print (portability and embedded ads) with some of those of new media (passing on printing costs to the consumer; the ability to update regularly). But generally it underexploits too many other advantages – and this may be why so few people use them, and so many papers have dropped them. There are better ways to spend your money.
Online, it is not your entire newspaper edition that you are distributing, it is each individual page - from today’s edition, and from every edition in your archive (the long tail). Therefore, every internal link is a piece of distribution, and it should be part of standard practice (or your CMS) to ensure that readers are given links to related stories within your site when they are reading an article (and failing that, outside your site. Don’t worry, they’ll come back).
Likewise, any good distribution strategy relies on being where your readers are (and one of the reasons why traditional newspaper distribution has been failing for some time), so email newsletters, while they now seem old-fashioned, remain a useful part of any distribution strategy – the more specific, the better. Mobile updates should be even more specific, and relevant to the reader – or they’ll unsubscribe.
RSS is similar to email and mobile updates in many ways – and there are services which will convert an RSS feed to email, which has enormous potential for generating ultra-niche personalised email newsletters. But RSS shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for email: it is a different technology with different users and different uses.
The more RSS feeds being offered, the better. At a basic level, there should be RSS feeds for every traditional section of the paper – sport, business news, etc. Drilling down, the reader is likely to want RSS feeds for specific areas, e.g. a particular football team, weather in their postcode. Or particular stories – the latest on Big Brother, or Madeleine McCann.
There should be a feed for every journalist on the paper, and needless to say, every column, blog, podcast and video channel. You might also consider RSS feeds for any search results. And we should be thinking beyond the news – jobs, for instance, and dating, are obvious candidates. Once you’ve published those RSS feeds, others can do interesting things with them – which I deal with below under ‘Passing on’.
Finally, streaming video deserves a mention. It isn’t the best way of distributing content – embeddable video, also dealt with below under ‘Passing on’, is much better if you are selling advertising on the video itself – and probably even if you are selling advertising around it (how many times have you clicked through to YouTube from an embedded video on another site?). Bandwidth is less of a reason to stream, while copyright is not a problem with the Flash-based technology that generally constitutes embedded video. So why do we stream? If it’s too big to download, it’s probably too long to watch comfortably online. So split it up. Unless it’s live, make it downloadable, or embeddable.
New media adds relatively few new ways to ‘tune in’, but there is one obvious one – the homepage – and another less so: the live chat.
The homepage as we knew it is dying, but it still serves a purpose: an at-a-glance overview of content. A place for grazing. Most readers are search-driven and will enter your site through a link to a specific page, but a significant minority will search for the newspaper itself, or click on a link, or a bookmark, to the homepage. When they do, they are ‘tuning in’ to your headlines, your featured stories.
But they could be tuning into a whole range of things. It might be dynamically constructed rather than edited six times a day. It could be personalised like the Amazon ‘Page You Made’, or the Facebook widget. It could be aggregated from a gazillion feeds (but do we really need to do that when RSS readers already do it so much better?). Or do we keep it as a statement of what the editors think are the most compelling pieces of content on that day, for what that’s worth?
Live chats promised much, but haven’t delivered, perhaps because they don’t tap into the asynchronous nature of the web, because they ask too much of readers to ‘be there, now’, because the technology or the audience wasn’t fast or big enough. But perhaps the likes of Second Life will resurrect it. It’s one thing to pose questions to your idols on a text interface – meeting them in virtual person appears to be more attractive.
While ‘picking up’ and ‘tuning in’ have been central to the early development of news distribution on the web, ‘passing on’ has become central to its development in the web 2.0, social platform stage. And passing on has the potential to become the primary distribution method of the coming decades.
Of course, people always passed on newspapers, or told friends about a story they just heard on the radio, but digital replicability and networked technologies make the process easier, quicker and – crucially – more measurable for advertisers.
Imagine if every newspaper article had a perforated border and a freepost envelope so you could post it to anyone you wanted. Now keep imagining – you’re going to need lots of ideas…
Social distribution strategies
Some strategies to tackle social distribution are technical: using embeddable video rather than streaming or Flash, for instance, enables people to put your content on their website, blog, or Facebook page.
Setting up your website to ‘ping’ any pages it links to (linkback) means they will be aware of your existence, and may comment on what you’ve said, driving more content back to your site (be prepared: not all comments will be positive).
Creating widgets that people can include on their blogs or social network pages that publish your content or that say something about their identity as a member of your reader community provides a further opportunity for reaching new audiences, or expanding your brand.
Including a ‘Digg this’ or ‘BlogThis‘ button, or an ‘Email to a friend’ field helps automate and facilitate social distribution via blogs, social bookmarking services, and email (there are a number of off-the-shelf solutions for this, such as MediaFed’s widget, or WordPress plugins such as ShareThis and Gregarious).
Other strategies are cultural: the new distribution landscape needs journalists to engage in communities outside the newspaper by commenting on blogs and forums – not only generating return traffic, but also goodwill and trust.
Making sure your pages are ‘Dugg’ in-house, as Trinity Mirror did, or ‘seeding’ content with influential bloggers ahead of publication, as the Economist did, also demonstrates engagement.
One way to encourage these cultural changes is to recognise the distribution work financially: Gawker Media, for instance, are introducing a bonus system based on how many visits a piece gets. This is not a particularly accurate measure of ‘distribution’, nor of effort made to distribute something (it conflates it with journalistic effort, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but it’s an interesting attempt.
Another cultural change would be to share page view and sharing data with staff.
Some strategies are both cultural and technical: linking externally, for example, will be dependent on the organisation’s content management system (CMS) as well as the journalist themselves. Even without linkback, this will make site owners aware of incoming traffic and your own site.
Search engine optimisation (SEO) relies on training journalists and editors in the art of the search engine-friendly headline, but also on systems that generate meaningful URLs, heading tags and metatags, linkbacks, and ‘clean’ code. All will contribute to a healthy ranking on search engines – but remember it’s inbound links (translation: being part of the conversation) that really make the difference.
Crowdsourcing and citizen journalism initiatives require both technological and editorial support, but again have massive potential to generate goodwill and engagement with the publisher.
Likewise, mashups require a culture of openness and collaboration with people outside the organisation, as well as technical availability and openness of RSS, APIs, etc. But the potential benefits in terms of new services, applications, and readers, are enormous.
Implications for journalism and publishing
At this point it’s worth highlighting that in social distribution the journalism itself becomes ever more important, and the newspaper or channel less. I’ll repeat: it is not your entire newspaper edition that you are distributing, it is each individual page, i.e. the story.
In a glass-half-empty world, this could mean more panda videos, but a canny broadcaster or publisher will soon realise that, on that front, they cannot compete with YouTube.
In a nutshell, we are moving from a need for ‘news that sells’ to ‘news that moves’: useful news, distinctive news, specific news, news that we’re involved in.
For that reason, the potential of games for storytelling, for multimedia interactives, and for customisation and personalisation, becomes commercially important.
If there’s a story on the election in every paper, what can you do to bring in visitors? If every paper carries a match report, what makes yours distinctive? In a world of infinite information, where’s your ‘wow’ factor to get people talking?
There are further important implications for commercial publishers. Whereas an ad in a newspaper is viewed by whoever picks it up – whether they paid or not – online, content can, and will, be separated from advertising. Some of that content will have to be treated as part of marketing. Other parts will have to look at ways to incorporate advertising – as has happened with RSS feeds. And for others, it may not be advertising at all that makes the money. For this reason business models will need to change – something I deal with in the final part of this model.
As always, this is a work in progress. Please add your comments, analysis, examples, corrections and caveats and I’ll try to address them.