Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Secret Sauce Is There Is No Secret Sauce

By Peter Kampschroeder

This picture to the left sums up what I learned on the trip quite nicely. None of the newsrooms we saw had exactly the same approach, even among exceptionally similar services. There were always subtle differences in how they ran themselves, little niggling differences in what each company focused on. What’s more, all these companies were still experimenting, to try to find a solution to the currently shifting media paradigm that works for them.
Le Monde was the only large national paper we visited, and we always hear that daily papers are having the most trouble with this whole internet thing. So it was interesting to see what Le Monde was doing to adjust, even if there weren’t any other newspapers I could compare it to.

Le Monde’s strategy was pretty sensible and straightforward. It puts all of its articles up on the web, left only some outside of the paywall, and slowly started intergrating its print and digital newsrooms. The paywall approach makes sense, of course -- it lets you glance at some of the articles before deciding whether or not to buy the issue, like someone perusing the headlines at a newsstand might do.

The intergration of its print and digital newsrooms is a bit more odd, and it’s something the paper is being very careful and conservative with. Trying to break down the internal cultural walls between its older print journalists and younger digital journalists runs the risk of corrupting the style that people have come to expect from Le Monde, which is why it is being very careful and slow with it. What editors want is a staff that can seamlessly switch between writing for a national afternoon newspaper and a 24-hour, primarily text website.

This is completely opposite from what Slate.fr is doing. Slate “sells” primarily to the same audience as Le Monde, but it has no print newsroom, it never had a print newsroom, and it doesn’t want a print newsroom. People who can write daily newspaper stories and good web stories may work for Le Monde, but Slate just needs people who can write well for the internet.

The interesting thing is that while both these news agencies have different approaches to the internet and share some of the same audience (wealthy, educated professionals), both of them are rather successful. So clearly, in the world of print and print-like publications, there’s not really a single good approach for how to deal with the rising popularity of digital media. There’s many approaches that will work, be it putting your print material on the web or designing specifically for the web.

The news wire services we visited hadn’t really changed their business in the face of digital media; for them, global telecommunications just meant they had a faster way to get their product to their client. Where they did differ in their approaches was in what product, exactly, they sold. Reuters covers news on every topic from around the entire globe. They are the most general of generalists, and that’s worked out pretty well for them. Rome Reports, on the other hand, focuses on a very narrow specialty — events in and around the Vatican. While Reuters offers data on almost any subject, what Rome Reports sells is expertise and depth. Both companies make money, and while Rome Reports may not make as much money as Reuters, it’s approach doesn’t require it to make nearly as much money as Reuters. So in the news wire service business, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Digital media and area of focus weren’t the only area where the news services differed; what also stuck out to me was that each countries’ news services ran themselves in a slightly different way for their different national audiences.

France24 broadcasts in French, English, and Arabic to a worldwide audience. It’s selling point is a French perspective on international news, as opposed to the American-oriented coverage given out by CNN. You can see this in their coverage; they cover European news more then American news, they don’t talk about the private lives of celebrities very much, and all their anchors stand. Even within the company there are divisions. The English and French channels cover much of the same content, but the Arabic station is more focused on news and events affecting the middle east, like the recent bombing in Damascus.

These sorts of divisions in coverage point to a similar division in the audiences of news companies. American viewers and French viewers have very different ideas on the private lives of celebrities, even if the American in question belongs to the same socioeconomic class as his French compatriot.

This doesn’t just apply to news companies, either; ad agencies have to tailor the campaigns they are working on very carefully to what market they plan on selling them in. Certainly, there are similarities between people that transcend nations. When the McCann-Erickson speaker showed an ad for Fidorka with a small girl tricking a rich couple out of their candy, everyone in the audience laughed. Just about all of them went on to buy Fidorka, too. But an earlier ad, for the soft drink Kofola, didn’t have any useful impact on us. The images of nostalgic summer fun in the Czech Republic just had us all kind of looking at each other awkwardly, as boys without shirts walked around saying things in a language none of us knew. The ad also relied on a dirty pun, and puns just don’t translate.

The fact that news companies have to change their coverage based on what country they are broadcasting in seems obvious in hindsight, but for some reason it never much occurred to me before. I think I had been misled by the fact companies like Al-Jazeera and the BBC have international viewership into thinking that there was some homogenous global news market. What I realize now is that while large international news companies exist, they will never completely replace smaller national or regional institutions.

Click here to contact Peter Kampschroeder.

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