Part 4 on the profession of journalism: Change is good

Since the post I did earlier this week on the outright release of Richard Wallace and Loring Wirbel (along with what is rumored to be almost a third of the Techinsights staff) I've had more visitors to the blog then ever and have been getting emails from corporate offices of many media houses demonstrating that they still have strong readership.  So it seems like it's a good time to get back to this series on the profession of journalism.   

The first job I was offered out of J-school was with the National Enquirer.  I was already working part-time as a clerk and weekend copy editor on the horseshoe at the Palo Alto Times and I was sure that I'd be getting on full time.  The NE, however, offered a starting salary of $50,000.  In 1974, that was not chump change.  That's how they got so many journalists to work for them.  Some people have a price.  That was not my price however.  I had "ideals."

Fast forward to today.  The print world is in a mess.  Magazines and newspapers are shrinking at a phenomenal rate on a national level. There's talk of consolidation if not outright closures.

But is that a bad thing?

Do we really need four magazines (People, We, Us, Entertainment Weekly) to tell us about the lives of celebrities, much less maintain separate staffs to do the reporting?  There was a time when magazines and newspapers were filled with substantial content and written by literary giants.  Today, not one person in 100 can name a writer of stature working for People.  (Here's a hint:  There isn't one.)

Journalism has a very low barrier for entry today.  If you look hard enough and are willing to work for very little, you can find a job and you don't even have to have any skill.  There are so many with real talent who aren't even in the field anymore, like my buddy Brian Fuller, now at Blanc and Otus, and Pete Hillan over at Fleishman Hillard.  What we are seeing is a major shakeout of a phenomenon that began around 20 years ago when publishing started a major boom along with the  growth of the Internet. That's when we started to see a lot of magazines that were, essentially, free.  We developed a culture that believes that information should be free, or in the least, paid for by someone else.

Tecinsights, Reed Business, Hearst, Advantage, Penton and Pennwell all have growing circulations, even when they intentionally cull their free subscription lists.  People, engineers in particular, want to read those publications and do, both in print and online.  The model of the past 250 years is that those publications are paid for by advertising.

But the advertisers no longer want to pay what they have been required to pay to keep those magazine afloat.  They still want the publication of the information, but they don't want to support it, for the most part.  Without the advertising the publications can't pay the editorial staff. 

Yeah, yeah, tell you something you haven't heard: Advertising doesn't work, which is why people are cutting back advertising.  The reason advertising doesn't work is that most advertising is crap, especially in the b2b tech arena.  Most advertising is designed by engineers, or graphic designers directed by engineers.  And it is crap.  In order for any ad created by most of the industry to work, i.e. make people want to buy the advertisers product of service, it has to run multiple times to get the readers to pay attention.  A good ad only has to run once to get a response.

So real advertising is expensive.  You not only have to buy multiple ads, but you have to create them and build graphics, which is also expensive.

But a decent article by a real journalist costs, comparatively, nothing.

That is the real value of the media, the third-party endorsement of your company's value proposition.  That value rests in the abilities of the public relations professional and the skill of the journalist writing the article.  When the article appears, all the news releases the company produces, all the marketing collateral published and all the trade show efforts become valuable.  Without the article, the PR and marketing effort is useless.

The value in media is the content, not the advertising.  Yes, you know that, too.  What you don't yet get is that very few companies and organizations are supporting that value financially.  Journalists have been providing a service for a paycheck that is no longer coming.  Someone is going to have to start paying for it again if it is going to be available.  And that's where things are going to change.

Just like you pay a doctor or a lawyer directly for their services--and for them to tell you the truth--you are going to have to pay a journalist to do his or her job directly.  You are going to have to pay more than you are paying now for something that you have tried to avoid--an objective, truthful well-written perspective, that may not agree with your world view.

Current publications will continue to employ good journalists to cover the "bad" news about finances and cover the news of the companies that continue to advertise (you know, like big Intel).  But 99 percent of the industry is going to have to be covered by true professional, freelance, journalists.  They are going to have to be paid more than they ever got as salaried personnel.

And you are going to have to like it, or die a horrible corporate death.

In the next few years, there are going to be fewer publications to get information from, either online or print, but your press relations is going to be more effective.  Trust me on this. Change is good.  It's really painful, but it's really good.  

Next, we'll talk about the audience for this new journalism profession.  BTW, it probably isn't you.