Old Media, New Media Need to Learn from Each Other

Online content publishers and publishing houses that produce print content, whether it be books, magazines or newspapers, sometimes have trouble understanding the very real differences between them. Yes, they both produce content — but they go about it very differently, which leads to different cultures. This can lead to frustration whenever the two cultures meet, or old media and new media companies try to compete with each other.

Both of those are happening more and more frequently these days. AOL’s merger with Time Warner was the most prominent example back in 2001 — practically the Dark Ages — but it was far from the last. We’re also seeing smaller examples of old media and new media trying to meet, first with newspapers publishing staff-written blogs on their web sites and later with old media companies hiring independent bloggers. Not all of these bloggers are being hired simply to blog, either; last month Ana Marie Cox, formerly a political blogger, was hired by Time magazine to be their new Washington editor.

If you’re looking for examples of new media and old media competing for the same audience, you don’t need to look any further than TechCrunch and GigaOm. These are two huge technology sites with plenty of bloggers, and they compete fairly successfully for traffic against more traditional media. So CNet and other companies with old media roots are hiring bloggers to compete against these new media companies.

Whether you’re competing with the guy from the other side of the media divide, or suddenly find yourself depending on him to help you both make it into the future intact, you need to understand him. More than that, you need to understand how he managed to get what you want, and realize that you may have to change. I’m not just talking about old media changing to compete with new media (though that’s clearly necessary). I think old media and new media can learn something from each other.

Ari Rosenberg wrote an article recently for Media Post Publications called "You Can’t Teach Speed." He found that one of the biggest differences between old media and new media is the latter’s breakneck pace. It’s not the only difference, but it helps to account for many of the rest. Publishers that start out online don’t usually produce magazines, because it’s not their core competency, and when they do, they often don’t succeed (does anyone know if eBay’s magazine is still around?). But Rosenberg’s point was that "online publishers operate without fear and at a speed traditional publishers can not match."

Speed is built into the dot-com culture. Writers and publishers are used to deadlines, but with online publishing those deadlines are even more emphatic. When you’re publishing content online, you have to think of each quarter the way a traditional publisher would think of a full year, and think of each week as if it is the fourth quarter. That has been true since before the first dot-com bubble burst, and it’s still true today.

When you’re going that fast, you don’t have time for fear. You acknowledge that you will make mistakes, and then you correct them. So accountability — knowing who is doing what, and not passing the buck — is another part of new media culture. It is (or should be) a part of old media culture, too, but in a different way.

This brings us to another issue that new media takes seriously: engagement. New media types don’t groan when they receive comments from their readers, because something went wrong and it’s somebody’s "fault." New media knows that it’s part of a community that chooses to read and participate in what it has set up. Because of this, new media publishers pay attention to the comments they receive, and respond to them. New media sites can and do make changes quickly if the input they receive from the community tells them it’s necessary. Rosenberg mentioned a 50-person online-centric company that was a client of his; it "literally changed its business model on the fly and is now soaring to new heights."

Being engaged and moving fast is part of what enables new media companies to change so quickly. New media companies also aren’t encumbered by the traditions of their old media counterparts; they don’t have people around saying "this is how it’s always been done" to slow them down. So you typically don’t see long meetings with lots of people, or two-hour lunches, at new media companies. New media companies do what works, and if that means shorter meetings with fewer people, or buying lunch for the whole office while a project is on deadline so people can eat and work at their desks, so be it.

Don’t get me wrong, new media companies play hard, too — whether it’s foosball or other fun activities on Friday, or the entertaining April first press releases you’ll see from many firms. But the fun and games are for blowing off steam, so employees can go back to work refreshed and better able to concentrate on the important tasks at hand.

The tricky thing about all these points is that they’re part of the culture. If an old media company wants to adopt these practices — and most old media companies may have to, if they hope to survive — it has to come from the top down.

Rosenberg mentioned a dirty little secret in his article: new media companies have "print envy." "They won’t admit it, but I would guess the salespeople at TheStreet.com for example, would not mind walking into an ad agency like Mindshare and seeing a glossy representation of their content sitting on the coffee table saddled next to Fortune and Business Week." It’s worth asking why that typically doesn’t happen, and why a new media company might want it to happen.

Old media still garners somewhat more authority and respect than new media, though that’s diminishing almost daily. But the reason they still have that authority and respect is because they have traditionally held high standards, and made their writers conform to them.

Contrast that with the much shorter "tradition" of the independent blogger. Bloggers usually write about whatever topics attract them. They have all the enthusiasm of your typical amateur, which is good, but many of them are not professional writers (let alone journalists). Anthony Moor, a writer for the Orlando Sentinel’s online site, observed over a year ago that "What makes us journalists is our ability to gather facts, synthesize, and write about the world around us — and those are not necessarily the requirements of blogging." He was answering a question put to him of whether newspapers can do blogs right, but the point is well-taken.

Bloggers don’t have to be inaccurate or engage in unethical practices. They don’t have to turn into journalists either. But if they tend to take a breezy approach to their blogging, it helps to be reminded that there are other ways of approaching content. Certainly, bloggers have blown the whistle when old media sources got information wrong — and that made news because in general we don’t expect bloggers to act as watchdogs over old media, or spot factual errors. Of course, incidents such as the one involving bloggers and Dan Rather make one think that perhaps both old media and new media have something to learn about fact-checking.

Bloggers are a product of new media. Call it user-generated content, or citizen journalism, but many newspapers and other old media companies see blogs as a way to give them what new media companies have and they lack. Frankly, they aren’t — unless you approach adding bloggers in the right way.

First of all, if you do use staff-written blogs, make sure that whoever is writing understands the blogging culture. Learn from the problems the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times had with their staff bloggers last year. At the former, Ben Domenech resigned when outside bloggers turned up many examples of plagiarism in his work. At the latter, Michael Hiltzik — a Pulitzer Prize winner — posted comments under false identities in his and other blogs, causing the LA Times to suspend his blog when it was discovered.

Second, don’t launch a blog without a purpose. Here’s a hint: seeing that lots of people are searching for particular terms is not a good reason to start a blog on that topic. You want advertising income? Make sure whatever blogs you add fit into your site’s purpose and content as a whole — and please make sure you get in a blogger who knows how to blog and knows the topic material.

This leads to a third tip: give your bloggers some guidance. Lisa Stone from BlogHer.org offers this advice to newspapers trying to introduce bloggers: "Call in a blog expert with a journalism background and have this outside person walk you through community scenarios to test what your newsroom (and management) can tolerate and what you cannot. If nudie pictures on your wiki are a no-no, you have a choice to make: (a) Don’t publish the wiki, and/or (b) Don’t publish the wiki without human and/or technical filters." Similarly, if you want to make sure your bloggers don’t violate fair use, you must make sure they know what fair use is, tell them you don’t want them to violate it, and get them to sign an agreement that they won’t.

Finally, be prepared to learn from your bloggers. If you’re old media, don’t automatically assume that bloggers are clueless — they aren’t. And if you’re a blogger, understand that old media’s standards are there for a reason; you might even raise the profile and respect accorded to your own blog. Keith W. Jenkins, writing for the Washington Post, observed that many of the decision-makers in the newsroom "have never built a web page by hand, watched Rocketboom, or listened to a pod cast. They don’t ‘get’ YouTube and have never heard of Flickr or del.icio.us or Boing Boing. They think viewing a 30-inch story on a cell phone is cutting edge and don’t understand that I would rather spend 10 minutes downloading…videos or hanging out in Second Life, than reading their newspapers — even the online version." It’s a whole new world out there, and if old media wants to remain relevant, it will have to be prepared to learn how to fit itself to the new model — to work and even think like new media.

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