Back in February 2009, ReelSEO released a first-of-its-kind, in-depth report on the opportunity for U.S. newspaper companies to grow their audience and advertising base using video search engine optimization (Video SEO). Written by Grant Crowell, “Business Models for New Realities: The Newspaper Industry’s Video SEO Opportunity” was the culmination of more than two years of industry research, along with numerous interviews with editors and publishers of newspaper companies nationwide.
A press release announcing that report quoted a former newspaper editor and video SEO pioneer named Greg Jarboe, who said at the time, “If you do a SWOT analysis of newspapers, their strengths are in print, their weaknesses are online, but their opportunities are in online video, and their threats are legion. That’s why newspaper executives should read this report today, not tomorrow.”
I thought about that old ReelSEO report last week as I read about the sale of The Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, which was announced shortly after the sale of The BostonGlobe to Red Sox owner John Henry.
A lot of people are hoping that the new owners can save both of these venerable newspapers. But, last November in an interview with German newspaper Berliner Zeitung, Bezos said, “There is one thing I’m certain about: There won’t be printed newspapers in 20 years.” And giving newspapers 20 years to live makes Bezos an optimist.
Back in January 2007, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the chairman of the New York Times Co., was quoted as saying in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, “I really don’t know whether we’ll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don’t care either.”
Okay, so maybe there is no future in smearing black ink on dead trees. But, even if daily newspapers as we know them can’t be saved, what are the prospects for journalism?
That’s a hard question. For journalism to survive and thrive in the early 21st Century, it will need to re-invent itself as radically as it was re-invented back in the late 19th Century.
In the 1880s and 1890s, a newspaper publisher named Joseph Pulitzer re-invented the New York World by adding bolder headlines, more prominent illustrations, sports pages, a woman’s section, personal advice columns, and comic strips. One comic strip featured a street urchin in a yellow shirt, and a hostile critic coined the term, “yellow journalism,” as a damning label for this kind of high-voltage content.
Today, virtually all daily newspapers have adopted bolder headlines, more prominent illustrations, sports pages, a woman’s section, personal advice columns, and comic strips. And they’d be honored if one of their text reporters, photographers, videographers, graphic artists, producers, or journalists won a Pulitzer Prize.
However, for journalism as we know it to be saved, journalists will need to learn how 183 million Americans discover, watch and share online video content today. That’s not something they learned in journalism school back in the late 20th Century. Heck, it’s not even something they’re teaching yet in most journalism schools in the early 21st Century. But they should.
Why do I think video the kind of high-voltage content that can save journalism in the foreseeable future? Well, as Michael Sebastian reported recently in Ad Age, “The New York Times is looking to create ‘significantly more’ video to meet the demand of readers, a move that will also help it scoop up lucrative ad dollars.”
During the company’s second-quarter earnings call, Mark Thompson, president and CEO of the Times Co., said, “The appetite, specifically from advertisers, for opportunities to do video advertising on The New York Times is so great that we think the chance we have to grow our share of the video ad market is large indeed, even if rates over time, come down.”
The Times also began offering unlimited access to video during the second quarter, allowing viewers to avoid its metered pay wall. That’s a step that the owners, publishers and editors at The Washington Post and The Boston Globe should follow.
It’s too early to tell, but sticking with the old business model doesn’t appear to be an option any longer. In May, the Chicago Sun-Times let go its entire 28-person photo staff. In June, the Oregonian announced that it was cutting 45 newsroom staff. And in July, The Cleveland Plain Dealer announced that it was cutting a third of its staff.
Now, I don’t want to minimize the difficulty in making a successful transition from writing stories for newspapers to creating content for video. Journalists will need to learn a whole new set of plays in a radically different creator playbook. It’s going to be as hard as learning a whole new set of rules in a radically different sport.