Take a trip with me back in time, if you will, to approximately 50 years ago. It's breakfast time in the Smith home. Mom is frying eggs and flipping pancakes. Sam is making airplane noises with his spoon zooming through the air. And Dad is sipping on his coffee while reading the newspaper.
Fast-forward to present day, and the scene changes quite a bit. Mom gets everyone a bowl of cereal and promptly sits at the table to check her Facebook News Feed. Pings and zaps from Sammy's Nintendo DS break the silence. And Dad checks the latest headlines from 15 different news sources through Flipboard on his iPad.
There's no newspaper sitting on the front porch, not even on Sunday. Dad has more interest in reading Andrew Sullivan's new post on The Dish, which he recently subscribed to online. Mom determines her own top news story based upon her friends' Facebook posts, rather than the editors at the local paper deciding what graces the front page.
Digital publishing success is no longer just about old media adjusting to the digital future. Big media brands-whether they have a print legacy or a digital-only history-are learning that most readers are not coming through the "front door" anymore, and they must adapt to a social future where aggregators and curators are guarding the door or be left behind.
THE DIGITAL FUTURE
comScore, Inc.'s "2013 U.S. Digital Future in Focus" report shows that smartphones hit 50% market penetration and 52.4 million people in the U.S. owned tablets as of December 2012. As the adoption of digital technology continues to rapidly increase, the landscape of digital media covers multiple viewing screens and platforms. "You can do anything you want from wherever you want and all you have to do is move your thumb," says Alan Mutter, a consultant specializing in journalism and technology, and author of the Reflections of a Newsosaur blog. "It's unbelievable to me."
Readers are now relying more and more on aggregation tools, RSS feeds, and social recommendations to find the news that interests them rather than going straight to the homepage of a preferred news source. Apps such as Flipboard offer users the opportunity to fully customize their news, pulling from multiple sources-including your own social media accounts-all viewable from the comfort of one app. Many are relying more on recommendations from friends and followers in their Twitter and Facebook News Feeds. So one reader may be consuming content from The New York Times, The Huffington Post, a favorite blog, and any number of other sources, all without ever going straight to the site.
Access to information is far vaster than it was even 15 years ago. "There are a million different channels now on television when there used to be only seven," says Joe Pulizzi, executive director of the Content Marketing Institute. "It's the same concept [with news media]-people are filtering through a million different outlets now."
Take Flipboard for example: The creators understand that accessing content through mobile devices is growing every day. "It's more important than ever that great content be discoverable, beautiful, and sustainable on these devices," says Mike McCue, CEO of Flipboard. "With Flipboard, we've tried to create a path to all three-where publishers can be found, articles and images easily paged through, advertising enjoyed, and subscriber models supported."
That means that content producers are no longer in control. "It used to be that the editors decided what was on the homepage of the newspaper, but now they have no control over what you read first," says Hugo Ottolenghi, professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University and Indian River State College. This also means that news sites need to stop focusing on homepage views and look at the bigger picture. "From my experience working with news organizations, everyone focuses on homepage hits, but the truth is, most people are linked in to a particular page (with less than 50% to the homepage) straight from social media. I don't think the diminished role of a homepage really reflects the health of a news site."
THE BRANDING OF JOURNALISTS
In a January 2013 article on the Harvard Business Review blog, Mitch Joel explains how digital technology changed access to artists of all kinds who were once unbranded, but are now available for all to find. For centuries artists were starving-both for food and attention-but are now part of a global marketplace, with a global audience, appealing to anyone, anywhere that attempts to discover them. While he refers directly to artists of the visual kind, his point, no doubt, extends to anyone with a craft to sell, including journalists.
Jennifer Gaie Hellum, a multimedia journalist and social media specialist, believes the adaptation of the news industry changed the career trajectory for journalists, making self-branding critical. In the past reporters could start in small markets, pay their dues, move up in the world, and settle into a career with a legacy news organization, but they now face massive layoffs and the elimination of hundreds of those legacy news organizations because of the pressures of today's news environment.
"Journalists' names, or bylines, are now their security and their currency-and not just within local, regional, or even national boundaries," Gaie Hellum says. "Anyone in the world can find a journalist's work if it's online. As someone who started in journalism in the 1980s, I tell journalism students how fortunate they are to have everything they need to begin building their brands and, thus, their careers, even before they graduate."
Personal branding is about establishing credibility with the reader and audience development, according to Mutter. In a time when the trust that readers have in journalists continues to drop, creating a personal brand allows people to know who you are and what you stand for.
Take Andrew Sullivan, for example. On Jan. 27, 2013, he announced on his blog The Dish that he would be leaving The Daily Beast and, from that point on, The Dish would be supported through paid subscriptions. While his post about the move explains the reasoning in great detail, Sullivan simply summarized the transition by saying, "We wanted to experiment with the very old, but also now rare, formula of simple reader-supported journalism, without ads, advertorials, or pageview whoring."
While Sullivan says, "I am not a brand. I am a writer," it's evident by the fact that he raised more than $600,000 in less than 2 months that readers are more interested in Andrew Sullivan the Writer than they are in The Dish on the Daily Beast. He is an established brand within the industry.
"A writer writes," Sullivan says. "If she writes something worth reading and does so consistently, she will find an audience. It takes time, real patience, a huge work ethic, and improvisation, but it can be done. A writer can now reach readers without the apparatus of old, institutional gate-keepers. What I'm trying to prove is the next logical stage."
Gaie Hellum believes success follows originality. "These trailblazers succeed because they've established credibility with their readers," she says. "Most of the folks I know who've succeeded in working for themselves provide content about a specific topic or an industry and have established themselves as the authority." She mentions journalists that managed to siphon success away from the so-called "gate-keepers," including Jim Romenesko, who left Poynter and supports his own blog through donations, and Lenore Skenazy, who, like Andrew Sullivan, was an established journalist before she started her Free Range Kids blog.
However, not everyone is as successful as Sullivan at detaching from or starting without a major media brand for backing content. Mutter points out that, as Oprah learned when she left syndicated television to start her own cable channel, even a big media star can have trouble sustaining her audience when she decides to go independent. Alternatively, HuffPost, Matt Drudge (creator of Drudge Report), and I Can Has Cheezburger? built enormous online audiences from scratch.
"What does it all mean? There are many ways to establish and monetize a brand," Mutter says. "It takes luck, appealing content, luck, promotional skill, and luck. Did I mention luck?"
Ottolenghi agrees and explains that no one knows the right formula for success yet, not the media giants or self-branded journalists-for every Sullivan and Drudge, there are thousands of writers and reporters who struggle. "Here's my wacky theory," Ottolenghi says. "Nascent markets are filled with many players who experiment. When commercial radio stations began in 1920, they quickly grew in number and formats. The business matured as owners figured out how to build audiences and make money. Today's independent writers and journalists are opening up their own radio stations. Their job is easier because everyone already owns a receiver-computer, tablet, or smartphone. But their job is harder because there is no licensing to restrict competition. With a little more time-because everything happens fast on the internet-the right formula will appear."