We’ve seen the death of old school print journalism coming for a while now. The mobile web has created a society of citizen journalists, and now that we can write and shoot the news ourselves (“Officer, could you be a dear and tase him again under the streetlight? The shadows on that last take were awful.”), we see little reason to pay for it. I always suspected that this shift would finally force print journalism and public relations to merge, but something even more interesting has happened: print journalism turned into full-on advertising.
Specifically, let’s look at magazines. Now that most of the consumer magazines have gone to the big newsstand in the sky, the remaining publications are predominantly trade magazines, hanging on desperately to an ancient medium and its rickety business model. Business / trade magazines have always toyed with the convergence of editorial and paid content, but the success of social media as a news source has forced them to go all in.
“We want to do a story about your client,” they tell us, “and look at the great rate on this display ad.” Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. And more and more often they simply ask us to write the story ourselves. They can’t even be bothered to author their own articles! “We can’t tell your story like you can anyway,” they say, flipping through a wad of cash and pouring themselves a scotch. It’s the Tom Sawyer business plan – convince your customers to do your job for you.
I sometimes wonder who actually works at these places anymore. The sales manager and a layout artist? I bet the company picnic is a blast. In the old days, we would send a press release to an editor and he or she would look it over, determine its news value and give it to a reporter who would make it uniform with the rest of the publication. Today, they either pass it directly on to the sales team (like throwing chum over the side of a boat) or they simply print it / post it as is.
“Wait a minute, Jay, isn’t that your dream come true?” you might ask. “Don’t you love it when the media publishes your information without editing it?” Well, yes and no. While I do get to write with impunity (“Important news from the world of health science: SALE ON BOUNTY PAPER TOWELS!”), I think we can all agree by now that people are pretty smart. And once they catch on that your publication is just a bunch of ads disguised as content, they find something else to look at (like social media, for example).
You see, as these publications transformed from being news-first to being ads-first, the publishers forgot that all content needs to be compelling, no matter who writes it or where it appears. Original content (like news) is compelling. Great branding is compelling. They’re not the same thing, but they work best when they work together. There used to be balance in Cosmo magazine, for example: read a semi-pornographic article written by a woman in Idaho pretending to be a reporter in New York City, glance at a couple of well-made, glossy ads. Everybody wins. Today, Cosmo has so many advertisements that you can’t even locate the stories. The covers yell “The Five Most Blah Blah Blahs” and “Seven New Blah Blah Blahs You Can’t Live Without” but I challenge you to actually find any of these articles in the magazine. I’m pretty sure the sales manager just recycles old cover elements each month and starts making calls to advertisers.
Why should we care? I’m not sure we should. Once the business leaders who have ink on their page-turning fingers are all succeeded by business leaders who have blisters on their swiping fingers, the magazine industry better have it all figured out or they will be 100% extinct instead of just 75% extinct (or as Miracle Max would say “mostly dead.”) Personally, I don’t think it’s going to take very long.
Modern consumers don’t give their attention away for free. You better give them something of value, or they will leave you behind.