"If content is not king," asked Variety publisher Neil Stiles at a downbeat Digital Hollywood journalism panel Wednesday, "what is?"
Also trying to make sense of the new media landscape were (in photo, rear) The Wrap's Sharon Waxman (who reported here), Drex Heikes, new editor of LA Weekly, Alan Frutkin, a video producer at Nielsen Business Media, (in front) Fox News Channel correspondent Anita Vogel and LA Times calendar/business entertainment editor Sallie Hoffmeister. Moderating was USC Annenberg's Jerry Swerling.
What struck me was that each panelist was so focused on their own small piece of the puzzle that they couldn't see their way clear to big-picture solutions. At least Heikes was fighting for quality content. He won a Pulitzer as editor at the Las Vegas Sun by giving readers in-depth investigative reporting, and increased readership too. So instead of worrying about the lack of traffic spikes from Nikki Finke, the LA Weekly is trying to supply their readers with good journalism.
But Stiles was both stark and confusing about his goal to stop worshipping content and think about how to "serve our users." Several of the panelists complained that increasing traffic has little bearing on generating more revenue with bargain basement CPMs (cost-per-thousand) these days. "I don't think ad revenue and subscription streams support what we do," Stiles said. "'I'm not optimistic about supporting the habit we call journalism." When I asked him to clarify, he said, "Journalism is not dead. The issue is two-fold: how to pay for it. The old model doesn't work. We have started toward paid content. It is going to be different than it has been in the past."
Is it serving the customer to charge them for content? That's what the LAT, Variety, the NYT and The Wrap are all trying to figure out ways to do, as the advertising model simply isn't making up for what they're losing on the print side. Overhead is the real problem for the big print companies. But even new trim online outfit The Wrap is struggling with online math.
And the LAT seems to be pursuing a strategy of chasing younger online readers with Twilight and gossip, luring them to the site and then trying to hang onto them. Hoffmeister also cited Geoff Boucher's Hero Complex blog, which is wildly successful not by reaching to the lowest common denominator but by delivering smart, inside genre material. In other words, it's quality. And Boucher works overtime, instinctively understanding how to market and promote the blog. The Hero Complex is a hybrid model of smart journalism and fast blogging. The two are not antithetical.
It is a huge mistake for folks at newspapers who are trying to wrap their brains around online journalism to think that chasing traffic is the answer. It will only cheapen and downgrade the product and force their best writers to do what gets the most hits. Celebrity! Scandal! Tabloids! We all know where that leads.
And Nielsen is right to push video content: consumers love it. Waxman is turning away from video because it's expensive to support and doesn't get that many hits.
Vogel was revealing of the ways that even TV reporters are now being asked to market their reports via Twitter and Facebook, carry their own cameras and even stream breaking news. All good: unless it makes her do her job less well.
Heikes is right to ask about ways that journalism can reach consumers via more sophisticated marketing ("got journalism?") and smart mobile devices, where people happily pay for their clicks and access. That's the future, whether it's a more internet-friendly Kindle or some other device.