Ken Doctor: How Newspapers Can Stop Losing Readers And Money

April 16, 2015 • Business Models • by

The future of the news business is in relationships. That’s Ken Doctor’s response to the continuing economic distress of newspapers. The avid media analyst and sought-after guru of all things newsonomics argues that news organizations have to rebuild relationships with their readers.

These relationships, Doctor suggests, will allow media companies to collect, analyze and use data in order to provide better editorial content and more interesting platforms for advertisers.

“If you want to be essential in people’s lives,” Doctor said, “you have to rebuild that relationship. It takes some imagination.”

For the keynote speech at the University of Oregon’s What is Journalism? conference in Portland, Oregon, Doctor presented a snapshot of opportunities and challenges facing the news industry. He criticized newspapers for abandoning their readers and forgetting about their strengths.

Newspapers were always doing more than just providing headlines, he said.  Now, however, “they’ve shrunken in their purpose, they’ve shrunken in their business and they’ve shrunken in their relationships.”

Print publications continue to lose money

The results are as well-established as they are sobering: print publications keep losing money; no matter how much newspapers try to dig out, their hole is getting deeper; and, in the context of the United States, the chasm between big national news organizations and struggling local or regional media groups is growing.

Doctor said that many news organizations made matters worse because they charged more for less content and, despite an impressive history of audience satisfaction, the industry invests more in advertising than in audience.

Data can help newspapers understand what their readers want

Rebuilding the relationship with readers, in Doctor’s view, means building deep, wide and data-laden relationships with customers. The logic behind this thinking is already obvious in other industries, just not in journalism: Relationships provide data. Analyzing that data gives insight into the users’ routines and preferences. Understanding the customers’ behavior and needs is crucial for developing customized content.

Doctor urged media companies to reframe their thinking. The question, as he put it, is not “What do I have that I can give them?” but “What do they want?”

As an example, Doctor mentioned the weekend app of the Financial Times. “They looked at their data and said, ‘Well, people love to read entertainment and features on Sundays on their tablet.’ They created a special weekend tablet product, very successful with readers and advertisers.”

Newspapers spend little on content, yet content is key to reader satisfaction

Content is key in this focus on relationships. Doctor pointed out that American newspapers are spending only 12.5% of their budget on content. In contrast, new start-ups with less overhead and infrastructure costs pour 60% of their budget into the actual news product. To improve content Doctor suggests two strategies: a stronger focus on explanatory journalism (the newsonomics of why and how) and more service apps.

But building relationships goes beyond content, Doctor said. It may also entail creating physical spaces for the news organization to meet up with its community, something the Guardian is envisioning by building Guardian Space in central London.

Measure quality rather than clicks

When building relationships with their users, news organizations should also reevaluate their metrics of success, Doctor advises. Obsessing about clicks and just measuring time spent on the website won’t do the trick. “I think the big question is: How do we earn our way back into people’s lives?”


Pic credit: Flickr Creative Commons PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE

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