At Editorial IV we’re fascinated by the changing media landscape. It’s something we constantly keep an eye on and love to write about. In recent years there’s been a seismic shift from print to digital and many of the giants – media staples like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal – haven’t moved quickly or efficiently enough. As a result, there have been constant cuts to their staffs. Unlimited budgets that used to afford the luxury of having highly specialized journalists in every imaginable field no longer exist. For example, where you used to find a staff writer focused exclusively on Bordeaux wines, there might just be a wine editor. Or maybe no one will focus solely on wine. That’s just one example, but the roles are expanding from the specialist to the generalist variety. It’s important to note that even as the roles become more general, the writers at both newspapers are some of the best at what they do. These observations are not an attack on the quality of individual work, but rather observations on the organizations’ attempted transitions into the digital world.
In my opinion, much of their current dilemmas can be attributed to two things: (1) They weren’t, and in some cases still aren’t, willing to cut their losses and have adopted faulty business models; and (2) Digitally native outlets that launched at the right time now have an upper hand in many cases. There are two types of digital outlets that are collectively threatening the sustainability of these newspapers.
The first are outlets like Business Insider, which in January passed the WSJ as a digital business site with 23 million unique visitors per month, compared the WSJ’s 20 million. A month later, according to the WSJ, it also passed AOL’s Money and Finance and Bloomberg LP’s news site and was up to 25.4 million unique visitors per month. More than 70 Business Insider journalists generate and repurpose content as an astounding rate. No one understands the recipe for shareability better than Business Insider’s chief executive Henry Blodget, who long ago received a “dishonorable discharge” and lifetime ban from the securities industry and has found new life in the media industry. Shareability, it seems, is achieved through concise wording, lists (lots of lists) and heavy usage of images, videos, tweets and other links. Business Insider quite literally has sharing down to a science. After another $12 million round of investments a few weeks ago, it’s valued at around $100 million, about 5X its 2013 revenues. Perhaps more important than how much money Business Insider has raised are the faces behind the funding. They include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the wildly successful venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and a host of other big hitters who believe Business Insider is built to last. In an on-demand world, Business Insider is the type of outlet that can encounter a story and write or rewrite it in an immediately digestible fashion within minutes.
It’s complemented by the likes of Quartz, a digitally native outlet launched by Atlantic Media in 2012. There’s no content quality gap between the likes of the WSJ and the NYT and Quartz. Unlike Business Insider, which focuses on expedience and shareability, Quartz delivers the same amount of research, expertise and writing quality we’ve come to expect from the elite daily newspapers. It makes sense why. Take Kevin Delaney, Quartz’s editor-in-chief and co-founder, for example. He used to be managing director of WSJ.com, after a decade as a WSJ journalist. The difference is that instead of having to transition to the online world, Quartz was born there. Instead of having to balance print and digital, it never had print. This is Quartz’s one-sentence self-description: “Free and built for social distribution with no pay walls, registration walls, or app downloads, Quartz is ad-supported and can be accessed simply at qz.com.” There are Quartz readers in 193 countries who have accounted for more than 100 million views and 65% of them are executive-level business leaders, according to the “About Quartz” page.
As you’ve probably noticed, print newspapers like the WSJ and the NYT have taken a trial and error approach to digital. Pay walls are in place. Free content is limited. They’re not built for social distribution. They’re still taking a print approach to the digital world. And there’s no easy solution.
They’re going to have to come up with strategies to maintain relevance and reestablish dominance in the Digital Age. With the right approach, they may be able to do just that, and they still have a large enough budget to continue experimenting for some time. Competition is coming from angles, ranging from outlets that crank out content by the minute, outlets that are comparable quality-wise, but are digitally native, and everything in between.
In a follow-up post soon, I’ll share some thoughts on what I think would be interesting and effective approaches to transitioning the print model that has worked for so many years online. Of course, if there was a perfect solution they likely would have already figured it out, but it’s fun to speculate…