Personal viewpoint: Journalists have responsibility to engage with audiences

Many editors and newsroom middle managers have stories about a circulation department that consistently failed to deliver papers on time (with the result that unhappy readers and agents would, as a last resort, complain to the newsdesk).

by WAN-IFRA Staff | October 17, 2013

Then there are the ad reps who announce last minute changes that throw out the most carefully planned packages.

My personal favourite is the newspaper marketing genius who took a giant billboard promoting an upscale weekend newspaper in a peri-urban industrial area that was deserted after 3pm every Friday.

But ultimately, in the great industrial age of newspapers when we had sprawling, mini-empires over several floors, filled with the minions of sales, marketing and subscription managers, it was always someone else’s problem.

No longer.

It’s not an entirely new point but one that emerged pretty clearly in a number of the debates and presentations at this year’s World Publishing Expo and at the 12th Newsroom Summit. No one made it more forcefully than News Corp’s Senior VP and Deputy Head of Strategy Raju Narisetti.

He said a number of things that, a few years ago, would have had him thrown out of church but one of the central points of his presentation was this:

Since journalists have the tools to distribute and promote their content and engage audiences in a way they never had before, they also have the responsibility to do so. He also urged them to work closer with their commercial colleagues. Horror!

One of the inescapable realities though is that the introduction of paywalls has put additional pressure on journalists to produce compelling and essential content for which people are actually prepared to pay. And let’s agree: The opaque nature of consumption (and advertising performance of course) of the omnibus newspaper gave a lot of cover for mediocrity.

If you wanted one quote from Narisetti to take home to your newsroom it is this: “Journalists often complain they are given too much to do, [but] there’s nobody else who is going to bring your journalism to [readers] but you … it’s not just a business problem.”

This warning was all the more interesting for the fact that it came from a senior figure in a major, mainstream media player (with 23 years experience in the newsroom) and not from a nimble startup.

At least one big media player that has formalised the the link between journalistic excellence and commercial performance is The Globe and Mail. Publisher Phillip Crawley told the Expo how the Canadian firm is incentivising journalists to create content that results in subscription sign-ups to its paywalled and metered web product.

A system like this is bound to stir some controversy – a few of my senior colleagues visibly blanched at the idea when I shared it with them after the Expo – but there are bound to be other newsrooms testing similar concepts, either as part of content sale strategies or as revenue shares on ad impressions.

Narisetti also reminded the summit that the people stealing our editorial lunch are not other journalists: Commercial brands are reaching their markets without us and competing for our readers’ time.

Again, while the emergent and increasingly sophisticated stylings of native advertising may be a threat to revenue (in as much access to platforms is no longer exclusive) the desire organisations have to put compelling, useful and relevant content to their target audiences is clearly also an enormous opportunity. An opportunity that is for editorial teams who are prepared to put aside their queasiness about dealing with paid-for content.

You may do clear boundaries and smart rules to deal with this stuff (and the publications who are already playing seriously in this field most certainly do) but who better to tell stories for a fee than professional story-tellers?

Of course, if newsroom leadership don’t drive those processes, someone else in a commercial department will.

Equally, journalists now hold the resources to directly promote their content and their corporate and personal brands. Yet too many newsrooms still seem to depend on policies that prescribe what journalists shouldn’t do on social media for instance, rather than on strategies that direct them towards what they should be doing.

I’m not suggesting newsrooms can become entirely self-sufficient or that they can do without commercial support. And to be sure, there will be other kinds of dependencies. More than ever, we rely on big racks of servers to get our content out, and we’ll still need call centres to deal with subscriptions payments and the like.

But if journalists want to reclaim a central role in their organisations (if they ever had it) there’s probably never been a better time to do so.

All of this takes a new kind of newsroom leadership, hard decisions about how to use limited resources effectively, and a determination to fiercely protect the editorial core alongside a will to make independent journalism profitable.

Technology isn’t the end but it is a means for those who create valuable content, attract and engage readers and build respected and popular media brands – and who all sit in our newsrooms – to take back control and stop blaming other people.

Steve Mattewson, Managing Editor: News at South Africa’s BDFM ( contributed this viewpoint after his visit to World Publishing Expo in Berlin.

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