Monday, November 25, 2013

Pittsburgh Business Weekly Figures it Out

My local business weekly, the Pittsburgh Business Times , last week launched a total revamp of its traditional and new media platforms. 

We’ve all seen this kind of thing before.   A newspaper or magazine redesigns its graphic format and then to as much fanfare as it can generate, unveils the new look as a whole new variation of the publication. 

Because news consumers see “re-launches” of media channels so often, they tend to be de-sensitized to what the Pittsburgh Business Times did, and what it represents to the current direction of media. 

This situation is different.  So here’s what the Business Times has done.

Management went back to the drawing board and used focus group research as its guide.  Organization leadership abandoned any pre-conceived notions of what the publication needed to do and queried its readers, digital users, subscribers and news consumers in general. 

What the organization found was that digital media has not so much replaced print or other traditional media as it has added another useful layer.  However, its emergence has forced the more traditional forms of media to focus on their unique value.

To more fully appreciate this, I will lay out the conventional  view of media:

1.    Broadcasting – TV and Radio – is considered most immediate.  When a news story breaks, traditionally, a radio reporter was first on the scene and thanks to telephone technology, could file the most immediate report.  Later, satellite technology and helicopter cams gave TV the edge because of immediacy, resources and, of course, pictures.  Subsequent use of mobile communications technology have changed things even more.

2.    Print Dailies were considered less timely than broadcasting.  But thanks to their large newsroom staffs and the ability (or luxury) to assign beat reporters, they became the news resource of record and could be counted on to provide perspective to breaking news within a 24-hour news cycle.  This gave newspapers more gravitas than broadcasting.

3.    News Magazine weeklies and monthlies took the newspaper advantage one step further. They had large, accomplished, sometimes renowned staff members.  Celebrities in their own rights.  They had the time and resources to develop comprehensive features and provide perspectives that neither broadcasting or newspapers could.  When you read a news magazine, you get provocative thinking, excellent writing and superior graphics and photography.

This model of media coverage has stood for decades - that is until that last few years when the Internet entered the picture.

When the Internet first exploded on the scene in the 1990s, blogs made an impact.  Terms like "citizen journalist" became commonplace, as individual bloggers with no more journalistic training than knowing how to use a computer weighed in on politics, business, hobbies and any number of topics.  The influence of both the blogger and the Internet created a new form of competition for the news consumer’s attention. 

While this made a dent in the news media business, the Internet was not done. 

It seems that just as blogging started to flatten out with blogs losing their punch due to an increasingly cluttered marketplace, social media emerged, and that changed everything once again.
Combined with this is the development of sophisticated smart phone technology that literally put the power of a full computer in the pockets and purses of news consumers.

Blogs and other forms of Internet content have led to the term “content is king,” which is to say that now we are beyond clutter.  Information is everywhere – sourced everywhere, accessible everywhere in real time.  We’re now becoming accustomed to living our lives in a sea of information that we tap whenever we want.

Against this backdrop, it’s almost ironic that newspapers would fade. How, in an era, where news consumers demand more and more information, could the gatherers and repositories of the largest amount of that information be struggling?

The short and most simplistic answer is that industry leadership has not been able to get past the fact that paper as a medium is fading but not the need for information.

That’s what makes the Business Times’ recent project so interesting.  Here’s what they found as explained in the overview provided by the Business Times’ publisher Alan Robertson:

·         Readers still see the Business Times as a “primary source of local business news.”

·         Digital users increasingly “rely on our Twitter feed and email newsletters to keep them up to date.” 

·         Subscribers spend as much as 45 minutes reading the physical newspaper and prefer to “get their news once a week.  They’re looking for the answer to the question: What does it mean?”

·         News consumers are “switching platforms at least 20 times a day – from mobile to desktop to tablet to print.”

That last bullet point almost sums it up.  News consumers are media channel agnostic.  They aren’t simply moving away from print to digital. They are moving back and forth with extreme frequency.  What’s driving their movement has more to do with where they are and what they need to know or want to know at any given moment.  Instant access is now assumed. 

So, that conventional model may not have changed as much as media watchers think.  Newspapers still have their place, as do magazines, but there are a few new layers in play.  And those layers are driving the change.

Smart media organizations like the Business Times now have a better understanding and have made certain organizational changes to meet the needs of the marketplace.

The Business Times' news delivery structure involves all platforms and a commitment to “supplying continuous content.”  Not just hourly, daily or weekly – continuous.

As Robertson says, “News will break first digitally, on Twitter and at your desktop; online you’ll read those stories that matter to you just after our reporters learn about them.”

Of course, the Business Times, like other print organizations, have incorporated video into their digital platforms, so they are now wading into the same arena as that formerly owned by broadcast organizations. 

As for the print edition, the newspaper said it will explore new reporting approaches where reporters are branded by their beats.  The newspaper will focus on more in-depth reporting and features you can’t get anywhere else.  The goal here is for such stories to “set the agenda for community discussion on a variety of topics.”

This may not sound new to you, but what’s critically important here is that a news organization restructured itself around news consumer patterns.  So, rather than simply let the news consumer pick and choose its sources at random, this news organization has best positioned itself to meet all of those needs, at least in its niche as a regional business news resource.

If there is a moral to the story it is to the news organization’s credit that it left its ego at the door and challenged itself to be what news consumers want it to be. In doing so, I think it has become a model for other news organizations rooted in a print heritage and working to find their way in this digital era.

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