In case you didn’t notice, the media industry is in the throes of a revolution. At the forefront of this you’ll find journalists, and many of them are just as resistant to change as the organisations that employ them.
1. Shit’s changing and we’re not
About two years ago I got really bored with journalism (and publishing). It was all so stable. “Oh print is dead, online is growing… blah blah blah”. I’d been hearing it since 1999, but nothing really happened.
We repurposed a few print stories for online, wrote more news to feed a newsletter (and then unwittingly lied about its open rate to clients – many still do). We did a few website redesigns, cut some magazine frequency and most recently minced around with social media. But let’s be honest, it was all fairly uneventful.
As journalists we worked on our production lines, banging out the same shit we’ve been banging out for years. We weren’t crafting by hand anymore, we were assembling like a bunch of robots you’d see in a car factory.
As journalists we now stand at a crossroads. But we do have options. We can continue down the same path we’ve long trodden and gradually be downsized to obscurity. We can turn right and move to a competitor (but let’s face it, they’re fucked too). Or turn left and adapt (massively). Not many of us are turning left at the moment.
Normally this is the point when a red-faced hack waves a finger at “the bumbling layers of management” bemoaning their lack of investment. This is swiftly followed by the same journalists declaring they have zero desire to understand the commercial world (the forces of which pay their salaries), because of the ultimate trump card – editorial integrity.
Problem is, no one gives a toss about editorial integrity anymore and those that do (a few readers here and there) by and large don’t pay anything for it… so they don’t truly value it.
In short, old school journalism rules don’t apply anymore. And our industry is full of old school journalists.
2. Words are the least important part of journalism
Most journalists think their role starts and ends at the keyboard. Many don’t write headlines, and if they do, they’re normally shit, especially for online. Our abstracts give away the story (because we’re great journalists and apply the inverted pyramid, which does nothing but kill click rates on newsletters). Oh and we couldn’t choose a decent image if a kitten’s life depended on it. Nor do we give a toss about the most important aspect of journalism… design.
The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed now regularly outperform trusted and traditional news sources like USA Today and The New York Times. You have to ask yourself, “Why is that?” [Hint: it’s because they write great headlines, think about imagery first and listen to their readers].
Us journos have to get out of our boxes and start mixing it up. We’re connected to our audience in a way that is incredible… we just let traditional habits prevent us from being better than we currently are.
3. I’m a social retard
And so are you.
To be honest, I wish we were back in the late ‘70s rocking nothing but print magazines with a new state of the art colour printing press and a ready supply of mind-bending drugs. Sadly we’re inundated with social media feeds that generate dysfunctional communities faster than council estate housings.
Everything we do must have a social agenda. Is the story sharable? What image are we going to use? How do we sell it on Twitter versus Facebook?
I don’t have Twitter. Facebook creeps me out and LinkedIn is the domain of middle-aged corporate types flexing their flabby jargon arms.
But that’s where our readers reside and we’re not very good at hanging out with them. Our grandiose ideals of journalism don’t sit well beside cat videos, selfies and the kind of mumbo jumbo that reverberates between the boardroom and people’s profiles on LinkedIn.
But the fact is, these networks are now premium channels into our readers’ lives. They provide insights and if we use the right tech, we’ll gain valuable data that we can commercialise and editorialise back into our mastheads.
4. We don’t listen, we berate
After the Boston Bombing there was an outpouring of emotion and grief. Every news outlet reported on the horrors of the terrorist attack, but BuzzFeed went further. Yeah, they reported on the dismembered bodies and eerie images of empty streets, but they also listened to the community and wrote a story called “21 pictures that will restore your faith in humanity”.
It was a list (because that’s all BuzzFeed does, right?) of things that good people are doing to make the world a better place. Some were kind of pathetic like a bloke rescuing a sheep…
…and some were truly remarkable, like the 200 Japanese pensioners who volunteered to clean Fukishma following the nuclear disaster so youthful workers didn’t have to be exposed to radiation.
Traffic went through the roof, people shared the story all over the world and it was one of their highest rating pieces of 2013.
The audience didn’t want all the coverage to be doom and gloom, they needed something to make them feel positive. BuzzFeed didn’t do reader research to work this out; instead a really savvy journalist paired audience sentiment with reporting intelligence and made a lateral decision.
We can do that on our mastheads too… but we often don’t.
5. Journalists make the best sales people
I’m not saying you need to don a cheap pinstripe suit and smarm your way into the land of 7% commission, but journalists know every nook and cranny of their masthead. You know why we use certain colours, what motivates the reader and the reason every story your brand produces gets run. You also have pride in your title and fight objections better than all but the most sophisticated sales reps. You can even talk in a manner that makes people see value in your work.
It’s a shame that some of the publications’ best assets refuse to help the masthead make money. If you don’t start becoming commercially minded there’ll be no masthead left to pay your salary.
You can walk an editorial line and work with a sales team to deliver revenue but you are choosing not to and that’s the worst crime of all.
The truth is though, the world is changing, and journalists haven’t. But change is possible and right now feels like the most exciting time to be a journalist that I’ve ever known. It’s the Wild West and we’re on a frontier. We get to define what our jobs are, how our mastheads will look, what they will read like, who we interact with and tell our clients how to do it.
For the first time in years, the journalists are at the centre of the storm. The good ones will control that storm, obliterate our rivals and dance around naked while no one is looking.
PS. I could have called this piece “5 Reasons why journalists are the most important thing in media”, but I doubt you would have read it.