How the Collapse of the News Business Might be a Good Thing

During a recent appearance on CNBC, mutual fund manager Kevin O’Leary expressed his outlook for the newspaper business.

“The long trend is to zero,” he said.

So that’s bad, right?

“This sounds like a business plan which is handed to you when you finally descend into hell.”

Hmm, yeah. Sounds bad.

O’Leary is a cable-news bomb-thrower, but he’s probably right. The newspaper business is in end-times territory. But that doesn’t mean the end of journalism. And it’s not a bad thing for business communicators.

Since the aughts, media companies have been trading print advertising dollars for digital ad dimes (early in this period they also suffered through the great classifieds apocalypse, wrought by Craigslist, but that’s ancient history). More than a decade later, they still haven’t figured out a way to gracefully make the transition to digital. But at this point it may not matter because while publishers were trying, almost entirely unsuccessfully, to solve their digital revenue problem, Facebook has been busy stealing their audiences.

To understand how this is a huge, possibly insurmountable problem for the news industry, I highly recommend reading Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile’s series The Facebook Papers, over at Recode. Not only have news outlets become dependent on social media to attract readers, Haile demonstrates, but they’ve also reached the point where “every major trend in marketing is acting against them.”

Okay, that’s definitely bad.

But I’m not here to echo the chorus of rational, informed people pointing out that the news business is screwed.

It is. (shrug)

I’m here to argue that what’s happening here isn’t a bad thing, for two reasons.

What it means for journalism

First of all I believe, and I’m far from the first to make this argument, that the news itself – that is, journalism – will be just fine. That’s because, quite simply, people want it. I know this because they spend a lot of time consuming news. A fascinating Nieman Labs study says almost everybody with a smartphone uses it to consume news, and 70 percent of Facebook users get news on that mobile app every day. And our own research shows that, at least among in-house corporate lawyers, news outlets remain the most trusted sources of information. The Nieman study, likewise, shows media outlets as the second-most trusted source for news (behind friends and trusted followers).

The problem isn’t that nobody cares about or values news anymore. It’s just that they don’t care who delivers it. And so the incumbent business model for producing and distributing news is collapsing. This would be a catastrophe if it meant nobody’d be left to produce news anymore. But nothing remotely like that is happening.

In fact there are newfangled newsrooms cropping up all over the place. Non-profit news outlets are doing important work. Intrepid digital magazines are scrounging together the resources to produce riveting long-form narrative stories. Media companies that previously gave up on news are piling back in. Some of these models will fail. Others will take their place.

But somebody will figure this out. There is too much demand to think otherwise.

What it means for businesses

The shift to distribution by social platforms also provides a massive opportunity for voices outside the media. Facebook’s brand isn’t built around creating valuable content, just on serving it up. Same goes for LinkedIn, Twitter and all the rest. All of them want to be not just conduits to content (via links) but also hosts for it. And as long as that content is valuable or engaging, they don’t much care who created it.

That’s why Facebook opened its Instant Articles platform to brands in April. And why LinkedIn is reportedly rolling out a similar feature. And why Twitter co-founder Ev Williams is trying to establish Medium as a home for – not a referrer to – smart, lengthy writing. All of these places are in the content business. Each of them has millions of users. None of them wants anything to do with creating content themselves.

This creates a massive opportunity for anybody who is trying to reach an audience. Tony Haile describes this opportunity as it applies to journalists in part three of his Recode series. At a certain point, he argues, an individual journalist can make more income publishing directly through Facebook than they can on a publisher’s payroll.

Social publishing platforms have even greater power if you don’t care about monetizing your content through advertising at all. For instance, if you are a business (or, more likely, a business person) trying to get your insights out there, you can publish in places like LinkedIn and Facebook, taking advantage of their vast audiences, precise targeting and superior interfaces.

There are advantages and disadvantages to using someone else’s platform; we’ll explore those in a subsequent post. But anybody who has a point of view, and the ability to articulate it clearly and compellingly, should be aware of this option. Seeing your smart, compelling piece of opinion or analysis on the website of a respected newspaper or magazine still has value. But it might reach a bigger, more relevant audience if it’s published directly to a social platform.

Of course, on LinkedIn as well as at Forbes.com or any traditional media site that accepts contributions, the same rules apply: It better be compelling or nobody’s going to read it no matter where it lives. That’s a lesson news organizations should have learned a long time ago, and one that nobody can afford to ignore anymore.

Brandon has spent his career sharpening his editorial skills to become an accomplished and successful communications and marketing professional.

When he’s not being outsmarted by his daughters, he spends his time reading, writing and attending theater and live readings around the city.