Journalists: the big winners from the social media revolution

The assertion that journalists have a bright future might seem rather strange  given the somewhat disparaging things I have tended to say in this blog about the institutions and processes of journalism (many of which are contained in the posts here).  However, if we separate out the skills of a journalist, from the institutions of journalism we can see that those who are able to make this separation are presented with many opportunities.  Here’s why.

I have advised many organisations on how to make the transition to operating in the social media space.  Without exception, there are three challenges that present themselves when doing this.

Challenge number one – People

In social media, the answer almost always is a person, never a piece of technology.  You need people to monitor social media, to participate in conversations, to nurture networks and communities.  Buying an editing suite won’t edit you a video unless it has a trained operator, but it surprising how many organisations are buying black box monitoring products or out-of-the-box social network platforms and somehow expecting that to be “the answer”.

Marketing departments are going to become conversation departments.    They can only sustain that conversation via real people – either by gathering  these people in one place, outsourcing elements to agencies or outsourcing the conversation to the business as a whole via encouraging employees to use social media tools as part of their day-to-day work.

Challenge number two – Content

Content is now a volume game.  Generic, one to many mass message doesn’t work, people expect the information that an organisation produces to be far more specific and relevant.  As a result, it is not about creating a shop window, with a few fixed, expensive displays (ads, brochures, campaigns) but about creating a warehouse with the shelves stacked with the digital and highly mobile answers to any conceivable question a customer may have.  The organisation that understands this better than any is Demand Media, which has cracked the business model for content provision and in the process showed us the future of content.  Demand Media pumps out about 4,000 videos per day – i.e. the equivalent in about one month that the entire global advertising industry puts out in one  year.

This high volume, low cost, editorial approach to content is what organisations need to get their heads around and it is no good trying to get an ad agency or conventional production facility to help.  Their business models are just not configured around this requirement.

Challenge number three – Stories

When distributing information was expensive messages has to be short.  In fact, the whole art of marketing was about reductive communication – boiling down a lot of information into a single 30 second generic statement, a single image, or a short piece of text.  The bedrock of this process was the brand proposition.  However, social media is not constrained by the expense of distribution – distribution is free.  We can use what we used to think of a mass broadcast channels, for things as frivolous as individual conversations.  Brand propositions don’t get you very far in a conversation, instead what you need is a story.  Encoding a message in a story is a tried-and-tested way of securing distribution through conversational channels,  something religions worked out a long time ago before Gutenberg came along and created a print and publication culture.

The basis for marketing therefore has to be a story and the ability to tell stories and have storytellers within an organisation will become critically important.  It is also necessary to have a credible story in the first place – something many organisations will struggle with (but that is another story).

Hopefully it is now apparent where journalists come in.  Their skills are far better adapted to helping companies meet these new challenges than the skills of the traditional agency creative.  Journalists don’t necessarily have the strategic skills to advise organisations on what they need to do – but there is also going to be a surplus of strategists (planners) falling out of traditional agencies as this business collapses.  Seizing this opportunity does require that a journalist give up on the practice and institutions of journalism, (in the same way that a planner will have to surrender an attachment to the creation of the one-to-many mass message) but the practice of journalism is becoming a collective and collaborative process and moving away from said institutions in any case.

If I had the money and inclination, I would set up (or invest in) a company offering a social content production and storytelling resource to organisations.  Of course, there is an industry sector – customer publishing – that says it already does this.  The trouble is that this is a sector  shaped by and welded to particular means of information distribution – mostly print with a bit of electronic and digital on the side.  It cannot shake itself loose of this heritage and business model and therefore looks set to go the way of the traditional media and advertising agencies.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Storytelling Business Social Media Marketing PR & Technology Curated Stories Apr. 27, 2010
  2. Venkat

    This would be a lot more convincing if you could analyze a few examples.

    I know of several journos who’ve made the leap, but mostly its in the tech sector (Om Malik, Erick Schoefeld etc.). Social media seems to require an additional ingredient most journalists lack: an entrepreneurial mindset. The ‘other side’ is characterized not so much by different institutions as by a lack of institutions. So outside of the few jobs in manic mega-blogs and AOL, most will have to figure out how to make money, not just how to write.

    And I don’t think the Demand Media model is sustainable; it is a temporary race to the bottom. It may be part of a future institutional structure, but it cannot be the whole thing.

    The costs don’t really work out. If you ignore the make-money-blogging optimized crowd, in general people with the skills, talents and brains to be good storytellers in new media will not feel paid in proportion to their learning investment through new media writing. I think it takes as much work (maybe more practice, less formal training, but same amount of effort and personal investment) to become a quality, New Yorker level writer, as it does to become a doctor. You can’t expect those people to live on Demand Media level incomes. They’ll exit writing if they can’t make it pay, especially since not all types of writing are independently sustainable in make-money-blogging style.

    I think you are being unduly optimistic here. I suspect 80% of true “journalist” types will not make it, or end up in underpaid, hellish jobs. 20% will reinvent themselves for new media. The real change will come from the new generation of kids who self-select into the writing profession. They’ll bring the same amount of raw writing talent to the game, but a different set of personalities.

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