Even Old Media Institutions Are Acting Like New Media

60 Minutes has online games. The Wall Street Journal and The Times produce hours of video per day. Legacy publications have embraced social media.  

reuters newsroom-body.jpg

Reuters

The loyalty of baby boomers to print publications tends to be deeply rooted, and it is this older generation that still watches or listens to broadcast programming when it is scheduled rather than viewing it on demand. But these days, even the stalwarts of traditional media make themselves available on call, on screens of all sizes, and in evolving ecosystems of free and paid versions. What were once simply great newspapers, magazines, television, and radio are now websites with all the trappings, and that's where the audiences seem to be headed in droves.


It is no revelation that the leading media brands have joined in recent years what is an extraordinary process of expansion beyond their original platforms to accommodate the temptations -- or more explicitly, the needs -- of the digital age. Running down a list of the biggest names in traditional news (a selection of my favorites among them), including the New York Times, NPR, CBS (60 Minutes Overtime), PBS News-Hour, C-SPAN, the Economist, and The Atlantic, you realize that every one of them has made substantial commitments in multiple channels of distribution: blogs, videos, galleries, RSS feeds, podcasts, widgets, mobile and tablet apps. So far it is probably still the case that the overall financial investments involved have been greater than the revenue return.

Current media wisdom dictates that it is connections to social media that are essential. Listen to the twenty- and thirty-something representatives of Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter, Linked-In, and Google at confabs and there seems no alternative to embracing these means of delivering news and updates of all kinds; failure guarantees obsolescence and demise for your enterprise.

I'm in no position to argue with that judgment. My copy of the New York Times still carries the signature "All the News That's Fit to Print" box in the upper left hand corner, but what had me transfixed the other night was the 90-minute streaming video on NYTimes.com of a Times Talk interview with principals in the cast of Mad Men and its producer, Matthew Weiner. In addition, there were abundant social media options to engage. While the sheer quantity of output each day in the newspaper would seem enough to satisfy the most voracious appetite for news, all that printed content is only a portion of what is being generated by a staff that now is expected to produce round-the clock additional material for blogs and multimedia, and particularly of late, video, such as a morning business newscast and a taped daily show called Times Cast. The latest count of subscribers to NYTimes.com is about 450,000, a substantial and steady increase in circulation which justifies the strategic move a year ago to a metered paywall. Much of that is credited to the scores of digital age options that come with the monthly charge.

While news organizations with their backgrounds in ink and the roar of presses are converting to video -- the Wall Street Journal already produces four hours of live shows every weekday --television is supplementing its programming with extra material also that can deepen the impact of its stories with online features and social media. TV Newser, a blog on Mediabistro.com, had a particularly interesting piece the other day headlined "Online Test to '60 Minutes' Story Drives Record Views":

After a fascinating two-part Lesley Stahl story on the rare condition of face blindness Sunday night, 60 Minutes Overtime featured an on-line test to help viewers determine whether they are face blind or "super recognizers," people who are the opposite of face blind who never forget a face. 

The test helped the site draw record views Monday. The single-day high was part of a +820% two-day jump in streams for March 18-19 versus the same period last year and a +363% increase over the webcast's average Sunday-Monday streams season to date. 

As for the TV broadcast, the newsmagazine was the 8th most watched show of the week, drawing 10.8 million total viewers.

The Wall Street Journal, which years ago under previous ownership passed on the opportunity to buy what has become CNBC, seems ready now to compete with other financial news organizations for viewers. Alan Murray, executive editor of WSJ.com said in a New York Times interview that video investment carries the highest CPMs, or cost per thousand views "of anything we do," but justified the expense with the revenue video attracts. According to the research firm eMarketer, video ad spending will top $3 billion this year, up from $2.16 billion last year and "is by far the fastest-growing category of online ad spending." With so many of the top-tier brands in media still struggling to reinvent their business models as print advertising and circulation decline, it makes sense for them to upgrade their video output if that turns out to be a lucrative add-on to print and other web offerings. Social media is not yet the moneymaker forecasted for it but it spreads the word for those digital products that are generating cash.

The NPR site (the initials are now the official name of the broadcaster) highlights pieces that have been on the air but also has an array of blogs, widgets, newsletters, apps, and an especially robust commitment to its social media initiatives that give the website far more than just radio stories. NPR's site touts its various extras, but is careful to steer listeners to local stations that are uneasy with the preeminence of the national programmer which they rely on to produce top-rated shows such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air. Major public radio stations, such as WNYC in New York, WBUR in Boston, and WBEZ in Chicago, have also turned their websites into bastions of multimedia to build their audience share.

It was the Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray who summarized the challenge for the venerable brands in this time of intense competition with a fundamental insight: "What we are trying to do is serve our readers in any media and on any platform that they want us on." The survivors will be those who learn how best to make that happen.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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