Paid Content: It's About You, Not Them

After a year of hand-wringing about how digital users must "learn to start paying for their content," we appear to be moving to a healthier and more mature place where publishers are starting to internalize, rather than externalize, the media revenue problem. At a recent conference that I organized for digital media strategies, publishers who are successfully selling content directly to businesses and consumers challenged their peers with a straightforward proposition. If you can't find content in your portfolio that users are willing to pay for, then what are you doing in the publishing business? It was refreshing. It seemed to me that the media were finally starting to look inward and ask the real question in this debate over paid content: What is the publisher's value proposition? Why are you here?

While the major consumer media get all the press, the most dramatic reshuffling and refocusing in media has been going on in B2B publishing. After a number of bankruptcy filings and reorganizations, multivertical publishers started shedding many of the titles that they accumulated in the early 2000s in order to focus on a few core strengths. In some cases, publishers even sold some of their shuttered titles off to the books' own publishers and editors. When Reed Business Information started dissolving its business media unit, the construction group and elements of its supply chain titles were picked up by the former staff. Whether a more decentralized model in business publishing will work financially remains to be seen, but the emerging model appears to emphasize a tighter focus on narrower niches and expects new products to come from the staff's expert understanding of the readers and their businesses.

"Getting closer to the audience" and "understanding the audience" are clichés of content marketing now, but they are as true as they are hard to implement. The B2B publishers that fared best in the past 2 years were the specialists whose entire business was focused on one or two major trade categories that they knew very well. One publisher I know services the beauty salon industry, which is not exactly on the cutting edge of digital media. However, by maintaining close contact with the shop owners and product suppliers in this segment, the publisher understood where exactly these constituencies were in their adoption of digital media. Rather than assault the poor clients with bloated packages of digital marketing plans better suited to another vertical, this publisher was in a better position to contour entry-level programs that matched the industry. No, it's not rocket science, but it's a strategy that's sorely absent from business publishing in recent years.

The resilience of data products over the last few years is another example of core competency earning clients' trust and budgets. Whether it is an online trove of court cases for lawyers, the latest product specs for engineers, or government regulations for defense contractors, data resources proved to be indispensible to industries' workflow, whether they were ravaged by the recession or not. Every B2B publisher I have interviewed recently has singled out its data products as the last thing clients will cut because they simply can't do business without it.

Moan about the plight of the media all you want, but if the upshot of this recession is that publishers need to locate the central value they add to people's lives, then the process is a healthy and overdue one. Entities such as U.S. News & World Report are facing facts. The world barely needs two news weeklies, let alone three. So the magazine cut its print edition altogether, provided a weekly digital edition for brand loyalists, and recognized that its rankings and guides in health and education represent the core value around which it can serve readers and build new businesses. Sporting News knows that ESPN and Sports Illustrated can outgun it for 24/7 coverage across a dozen sports. So it decided to "own the morning commute" with a digital daily magazine delivered by 6 a.m. for the most avid fans of the three main sports. The digital magazine Sporting News Today is on track to get 250,000 paid subscriptions by early 2011. Rather than add another fantasy sports game to the cluttered field, it created a bundle of high value stats and tools for players of other people's games for $40 a year.

These are the kinds of bold decisions publishers need to make in order to dispassionately and self-critically identify their true value to core customers. The media have to stop whining and externalizing about "freeloading" users who don't want to pay to keep their businesses in the style to which they are accustomed. This is about you, not them.