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Don’t think of it as a newspaper — think of it as a platform for talent

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Although they have since become a crucial element of modern society, in many ways newspapers were just the best packaging and delivery mechanism for information we had available at a certain point: a way of aggregating everything from local election coverage to foreign reporting. Now, of course, we have an almost unlimited ability to create, package and distribute our own content — and that means journalists and even those involved in news events can reach an audience directly. What if more media companies thought of themselves as platforms for helping that to occur?

That’s one of the ideas contained in a new book from Nicco Mele, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School who acted as operations director for Howard Dean during his 2004 presidential race. In the book, entitled “The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath,” the author looks at how the social web and digital technology in general have altered the balance of power between the individual and the organization. And in a recent piece at the Nieman Journalism Lab, Mele argues the same thing is happening to the media:

“Some news personalities now play a strong role on Twitter and Facebook, but they often get little institutional support for this, and such participation and engagement remain merely part of a narrow web traffic strategy. But what if news outlets decided to flip their model, so that the editorial staff was not subservient to the brand, but the ‘brand’ became a platform for talent?”

Embrace the trend or be disrupted by it

Balance of power

Although Mele doesn’t explicitly say so in his Nieman piece, the flipping of this model is already occurring, whether media outlets want it to or not — as I tried to point out in a recent post about the shifting balance of power. Where platforms like the New York Times and Newsweek used to hold all the cards, and individual writers were forced to cut deals in order to find an audience, bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo have shown there is an alternate route (one we’ll be discussing with Sullivan and others at the paidContent Live conference on April 17).

While Sullivan’s experiment as a standalone media entity is far from complete, he has raised over $600,000 to fund his team, which means he is well on his way to being self-sustaining, instead of just being a part of the content at The Daily Beast and subject to their broad paywall. And a big part of what Sullivan (and pioneers in other fields, such as musician Amanda Palmer) see as the benefit of this approach isn’t just the money, but the personal connection with an audience.

As Mele suggests in his piece at the Nieman Lab, many traditional media organizations not only don’t help their journalists make use of social tools to connect with their readers, they actively discourage it with restrictive social-media policies. But what if they tried to enhance that connection and build on it — and perhaps even tried to share in the monetization of it? They could even experiment with allowing readers to subscribe to individual writers. Says Mele:

“On Election Day 2012, more than 20 percent of traffic visited Nate Silver’s blog. At the same time, his book had just been released. The Times had little role in Silver’s book. But imagine it had a big one; imagine the way it would open revenue possibilities, taking advantage of the giant platform the Times provided Silver. Publishing books, hosting events, and public speaking are just the beginning.”

Why not a personal paywall for writers?


This is the essence of the “personal paywall” that I tried to describe in a recent post: the idea that individual writers are what increasing numbers of readers are connecting with and seeking out — not impersonal media brands or institutions. Why not provide Nate Silver or Nick Kristof with as many tools and resources as possible to make that easier? The New York Times is clearly thinking along those lines, according to new executive editor Jill Abramson, but it would be nice to see that idea expand and accelerate beyond just a chosen few at one newspaper.

Instead of thinking of the newspaper as the pre-eminent brand, why not think of it more like a talent agency or a record label: an entity that gets its value from helping to develop and promote a variety of voices — in whatever way it can, across whatever platforms. Newspapers have always promoted their star writers, but any value captured has gone solely to the larger brand, the assumption being that those journalists should consider themselves lucky to have been chosen. But as Mele notes:

“Talented people — their voices, personalities, tastes and ultimately news skills and judgement — are the filters that digital era consumers want, not archaic, anonymous news brand names. With the decline of trust and loyalty in large institutions, it is increasingly hard to imagine people in the coming decades subscribing because of loyalty to an institutional Big Media entity. Yet it’s easy to imagine them wanting to fund several people whom they trust to bring them information they care about.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Christian Scholz, as well as Shutterstock / olyy and Shutterstock / Daniilantiq

6 Responses to “Don’t think of it as a newspaper — think of it as a platform for talent”

  1. A talent agency? For real? I guess most of media is owned by the have and managed to direct people’s opinion according to what the owners want. I do not generalize, but that is the impression I get when I read most of newspapers, magazines either offline or online.

  2. John Hayes

    Forbes follows a similar approach, and as a B2B media destination, does too. By carefully selecting the best authors we serve both our audience and the other strong authors who benefit from the shared audience. The audience gets value from our platform (including mobile apps and social reach) because we collect topics into a relevant content stream.

    All this is a bit easier said than done. For example, some authors may do as little as possible to take maximum advantage of the traffic that others bring, so we have to be active managers.

    Our audience is well served by domain experts who cover what they know. It probably won’t work for everyone, but this model works for a digital technical publication.

  3. An interesting thought but there is a big dilemma for the newspapers. The New York Times would only want the best and most popular writers, but if a writer is popular and well known why would they giveaway a significant chunk of their income?

    It is the same problem faced by the big record companies and publishers. They want to focus on the big global mega-stars (JK Rowling and Lady Gaga), but these mega-stars no longer need the services and brand that these big companies offer.

    As the Internet, search engines and social media gets better at filtering out quality and linking customers directly with real talent, the need for an intermediary to act as a quality kitemark will continue to diminish.

    Good for talent and customers, worrying for the big media brands.

  4. balmydrizzle

    I can’t agree with this sentence: ” a way of aggregating everything from local election coverage”. You neglect the spirit and devotion to making a news. I know you have your point of view, but this kind of conclusion will mislead people to think that news is “not that” valuable and they will gradully spend less and less cost to read(or enjoy) a news. I’m talking about human being’s feeling, not technical issue. I just think your article has some kind of “danger” that will destroy many goos press media. Writing or talking must be very careful cause most of the people are just fishes on a running water. No offense, though!

  5. Hi Mathew.

    A very interesting post. As a journalist with a preference for the digital realm, I find myself agreeing with most of what you say.

    I was, however, wondering if there wouldn’t be unwanted consequence of flipping the model, so to speak, for major news organisations like the New York Times?

    The media often see themselves as integral institutions in the democratic process – In Denmark, where I come from, we refer to the media as the watchdog that (sometimes) keeps politicians and powerful organisations in check.

    Wouldn’t newspaper’s ability to perform this function be harmed, if they were to become platforms for individuals instead of organisations with a set top-down policy in place about what is news and how it is reported?