Old News

It's not news that magazines are anorexic, newspapers are dropping in droves, and industry leaders are calling for everything from forbidding the use of headlines for linking to putting up pay walls around anything and everything. It feels frantic, even desperate.

Amidst the sea of catastrophic publishing news, it was lovely to read an article forwarded to me by EContent assistant editor Theresa Cramer about a newspaper deftly navigating these rough economic seas. This paper, which offers $42 annual subscriptions accounting for most of its revenue, has reportedly only lost a few hundred subscribers over the past year and even plans to add a couple of reporters to its staff of about a dozen.

The Associated Press article was a profile of The Budget, entitled "Amish Newspaper Succeeds the Old-Fashioned Way." This is not a paper consumed with following ad dollars online, nor with balancing a demand for information immediacy with the risk of undermining print subscription revenue. In fact, part of the paper's winning strategy is minimizing its online presence.

When, in 2006, the newspaper announced plans to go online, it met with a flood of angry mail from its readers-delivered over rural roads in the form of letters. According to the AP article, "Far from impeding the newspaper's success, shunning the Internet actually solidified its steadfast fan base."

It gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

For about one second. Then I snapped back into a reality in which readers aren't waiting for news to be delivered via paper, much less via horse-drawn delivery wagon. Given my readership, I don't need to invest too many column inches dissecting the irony of the first news media success story I've read in ages being about an Amish newspaper. Laughing to myself, I pictured the length of the line in front of a time machine that would transport anemic media moguls back to the glory days of pre-internet news delivery.

However, nostalgia's sweet blush would fade as fast as my fuzzy feeling-once those same moguls were afflicted by phantom texting tics and plagued by a perpetually fruitless search for a Wi-Fi signal.
There's no going back. I don't want to read news after it is already old, and I don't want to do my job without the benefit of web-enabled research. From search engines to email alerts, my job is enhanced. And I've got to believe it's getting better all the time.

Consider how my process of developing an idea has evolved from a water cooler discussion and a series of phone calls to Skype video chats and searchcasting updates and questions about what I'm working on to my network. The underlying concept has not changed, but the meeting places and the scope of my network have. I have always relied on peer and reader input to inform what I do, yet today this is amplified by myriad digital tools that expand that network and facilitate feedback.

However-as The Budget successfully meets the expectations of its primarily Amish readers-it is as important as ever to understand the members of your audience and to provide the information they want in ways that enable them to put it to work.

Consider one of the less-hyped battles between Google and Yahoo!, which was covered in August in The New York Times article, "Where Yahoo Leaves Google in the Dust." This article was brought to my attention by Barbara Quint, editor of Searcher magazine. It landed in my inbox via the Times site's "share" feature and grabbed my attention.

In addition to proffering the counterintuitive fact that Yahoo! Finance draws 17.5 times as much traffic as does Google Finance, the article examines the reasons behind this success story, including the simplicity of Yahoo!'s presentation and its popular "Tech Ticker" feature. According to the article, "When you click on a link to a news story accompanied by a Tech Ticker video, it starts automatically and seems intended to insert a warm human presence on the page." Further emphasizing the significance of this particular success story is the fact that Yahoo! Finance successfully charges for data that Google offers for free.

Certainly, it is possible that Yahoo! provides technology features that draw in so many viewers and make it worth paying for. Yet something about the assertion that the "human presence" might be a factor struck a chord with me: You see, I read this article because bq sent it. Yes, the ease with which NYTimes.com and other smart sites make sharing possible is a significant factor, but seeing her name (or Theresa's, or any of my trusted network) in the "from" line elevates the content's perceived value.

It is an interesting paradigm shift-from one in which the media as a whole, or perhaps only a few venerable brand names, would be a more influential factor in my likeliness to read something, to one in which the filter of my network carries vastly more weight. And as I look to the decline of media brands and the rise of social networks, I wonder if the media can find its way onto the buddy list of this new breed of content consumer.