Publishers maximize content marketing awareness metrics at executive roundtable

"Blank smart phone isolated on white", courtesy of Shutterstock.

At Poynter, Carlie Kollath Wells reports on top newspaper publishers' ability to remain profitable thanks to paywalls--and their plans to stay that way with subscription hikes and marketing.

The Dallas Morning News in May 2009 raised prices 40 percent. “We lost about 12 percent of our subscribers,” Moroney said. But, it was a good move, he said, and the paper is in the process of raising subscription rates again. “It raised a lot of money for us and it continues to raise a lot of money for us,” Moroney said. “We’re [at] about 32-33 percent of our total revenue coming from subscribers.”

All good news, right? But there's this weird abstract quality to it all. What it is we're talking about again? Let's look again at the article...

Four top publishers ... content ... content marketing ... content to populate company newsletters ... content ... content war ... content company ... content ... digital content ... local content ... unique content ...

Sure, hating that word is as old as the hills. It suggests the speakers have no interest in what "content" consists of, and makes it easy to insinuate pathological underpinnings for their failures. But it's also the message, and the message is marketing, and our reaction to it signifies only that we aren't the target market. Depending on the audience, top publishers have different stories to tell about what journalism is, and it's not always a grotesque one.

1. Journalism is public speech, the lifeblood of democracy and a healthy political arena.
2. Journalism is intellectual property, worthy of severe punishments for stealing.
3. Journalism is content, a fungible commodity.

The reason "content" is so icky isn't really because it devalues the arts. It's because it's a pitch whose appeal relies on the superficiality and ignorance of the people doing the buying. You can "just pick 2" here and still look like you're up to something fishy.

So who, exactly, wants be the buyer in these "content opportunities"? Their "clients", of course! But not the competing businesses eating their lunch, and surely not the readers whose continued consumption of it will always mark their bottom line.



  1. On next week’s Tom the Dancing Bug:

    Struggling newspaper hikes up its subscription rates, because it leads to more revenue.

    It then raises them again, losing even more subscribers, but hey, no problem, net revenue is still rising.

    Repeat ad absurdum, until the last frame, where the newspaper has just one really rich subscriber, who also happens to still be paying for AOL dial-up.

  2. In my dictionary, “content” isn’t a dirty word, it’s just a generic, value-neutral term for articles, images, video, sound, etc. which doesn’t come with any implications about the function, intention, audience, or method of consumption. It doesn’t mean you don’t care what it actually is, it means you aren’t making judgements about it.

    1. Denotatively, sure. But practically, for these companies, if “content” is the only thing they bow to, they’re not gonna care about whether it’s Fox News echoroom bullshit or news that people should know about, and it’s a lot cheaper to do the former.

      1. That is good or bad depending on the role the company plays; obviously we expect newspapers to publish based on their own judgements of quality, but if the company is a middleman like YouTube, we would much rather that they didn’t.

        SoundCloud, for example, refer to uploads there as “sound”. I am sure there are plenty of musicians who would like to be clear that they make music, rather than merely “sound” (like a journalist might write news rather than “content”), but it’s plainly sensible to use a more generic term because not everything uploaded there is music, nor do they want it to be.

        1. True. I’m not disputing the ambiguity. The difference is Soundcloud just provides a forum; they’re not selling anything to their users, and so have no stake in steering the overall content towards anything. They just wanna share. 

          The publishers in question here stand to benefit from being prescriptive about what kind of stuff they want you to view/read/absorb. That’s where “content” becomes symbolic for pure consumption which making money is the teleological aim rather than dissemination of information.

    2. I think it only becomes a dirty word in this kind of empty, marketing-speak context.  When it comes to publishing, one would hope that you ARE making judgments about content. What’s good?  What works? What are people interested in?  Otherwise, it’s just another widget that you want to move around and make money with, and only for the sake of money. Ideally, “content producers” would be passionate about their content.

      I used to work in educatinal publishing (hence the handle), and one of the big reasons I changed careers was what I can only think to describe as the “corporatization” of the company I worked for, as well as many others in the field.  The company was bought and merged several times, and a big part of all the “strategic initiatives” was bringing in a lot of people at the top who were corporate-raider types, with expertise in “business,” not “the book business.”  As a result, we ended up with lots of meetings about “leveraging content,” and the discussion of how to make good books stopped completely.  The marketing strategy and the strategy to make good content don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but lately they certainly seem to be.

  3. When it comes to hiring a marketing person, no matter what you /think/ their job will be, in reality their job will consist entirely of convincing you that you need them. Anything else they do is just a calculated ploy to convince you of that one fact.

  4.  That’s because the corporate raider mentality is all about “How can we cut the costs of production right up to the point where the audience stops buying our swill?”  Case in point: Look what happened to Beck’s beer when it was bought up. Anheiser-Busch’s flowchart boys came in and figured out how to replace the pure ingredients with cheaper ones. The quality suffered, about 20-30% of the users defected, but that was an acceptable costs, because they made up the difference by having a better margin. Same thing recently with Maker’s Mark.

    When you look at everything as a product, to be gotten to market as quickly and cheaply as possible, the whole world starts turning into an open-air WalMart. Lots of cheap, poorly made crap that people buy because they really don’t know any better. Competing distinctive products are either crushed by volume or co-opted & bought up.

    1. To their credit? great embarrassment?  Maker’s Mark has reverted to the original proof.  Meanwhile,  no matter what you think of Laffer’s Curve, there’s certainly a sweet spot for profit and it ain’t at the cheap end of the spectrum (in most cases).

  5. Anyone in the “content” business isn’t in the business of making content – they’re in the business of selling the consumers of their content to advertisers.

    1. Which is curious here, because the newspapers are selling subscriptions for something that used to be free – their advertising-laden websites with AP feeds and gossip fluff pieces.

      What it means is that the advertisers are no longer getting the returns that they seek, so the papers have to make up the difference by pandering directly to the readership for money instead of indirectly through ads.

  6. Seems like the infamous Laffer Curve might apply.  

    Between zero revenue from millions of “consumers” and charging zero dollars to zero revenue from zero “consumers” and charging exorbitant dollars, there is a price that generates the maximum revenue.  Of course advertisers offsetting the direct revenue complicates the picture. 

    Personally, I don’t like to see this type of thinking applied to journalism, but I can sort of understand what they think they’re doing.

  7. I think you gave the Poynter article short shrift by focusing on the “content” part of the panel discussion. Two of the publishers made the point that investing in original, local journalism is what is making them successful. If we can’t support that notion then as citizens and consumers we’ll be left with– what? TV news?

  8. We have a saying in the computer industry: If you’re paying for it, you’re the customer. If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.

    Newspapers are the organizations who spend money and pay all those reporters that create the content that certain other sites (not mentioning any names) find useful to repost fo “free” on their ad laden sites. Without those newspapers, those other sites would be nothing but ads.

    If you’re looking for market speak quotes, you don’t have to look any further than the very ad-bugs you place on all the pages in your site..

    Here’s the one from MediaPlex:

    “Mediaplex provides cross-channel advertising technology solutions and services that enable marketers to achieve one-to-one messaging, greater efficiencies and a competitive edge through insightful reporting and analytics. Our team of industry experts focuses on putting the customer first, providing advanced technology solutions alongside consulting services for the greatest return on their marketing spend.”

    Now, who’s the “customer” mentioned in this little market spiel above who’s getting “the greatest return on their marketing spend.”?

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