By Joe Banks
During a visit to Nova Scotia a few years back, on a radiant May day, we passed a coastal wharf east of Halifax where several lobster boats were tied up in the middle of the afternoon.
“Aren’t they supposed to be out working the traps?” I asked our host.
He laughed at the naïve mainlander, and said, hell no, they’re home watching the “stories”—those being the daytime TV soap operas. They’d set their traps in the morning, return to the house for a snooze and soap opera fix and would head back out in the late afternoon and early evening to gather the catch.
Putting aside the image of tough lobster fishers watching The Young and the Restless for a moment, I openly wondered how many of my contemporaries knew of this quirk of the mid-day routine of the people who harvest one of the great seafood delicacies of the world. It occurred to me that I really didn’t know anything about fishers at all.
There’s a metaphor there when it comes to knowing readers, and how it’s served these days by journalism-based products, legacy and otherwise.
I argue that no one is qualified to talk about changing journalism unless they understand how it’s consumed. And you can't talk about how it’s consumed, unless you talk about where it’s consumed, when and by whom. And then, after that, whether they’re willing to pay for it.
I’m trying to avoid wading into Marshall McLuhan waters here, which is not easy given the ongoing media disruption. But it seems to me that once you’ve answered those, then you’re on your way to figuring out how journalism would best be delivered in which location.
That would go a long way to explaining why community newspapers are still doing well compared to their big urban cousins, which are being picked apart slowly, but surely.
There are print products publishing excellent journalism in this country that are profitable—far more than there are purely digital ones. This is because there are people operating those products who understand who they are providing content to, how they want it and how many of them are willing to pay for it.
Web-based? Sure. Tablet? Maybe. Mobile? Paper? Why not? It’s really no more complicated than that.
But simplicity is in scarce supply these days as the engineers in charge of bringing us What’s Next fidget their way around digital solutions, as if the products they are trying to replace are absolute failures.
They do that, while failing to understand that most people want simplicity in whatever form it takes. And in some quarters, the way it’s always been delivered—newspapers—is more than acceptable to them.
And yet, to say that to anyone under 35 is to risk being branded a dinosaur, even if they know the failure rates for digital products far exceeds those for printed news companies. Try as you might, you won’t find a single credible agency tracking those failures.
At the moment, big Canadian revenue declines have spurred too many people in positions of influence to pay homage to American trends and the coolness of the technology and too little to a far more simple challenge: learning whether news consumers actually have a need or demand for what they want to roll out.
At the same time, there are misguided attempts to place a journalistically inclined product designed for one market or platform in another for which it was never designed. I refer to the practice of re-publishing already published content on websites when it was already published in the paper. Readers regularly wonder why newspapers do that.
In nearly every community of this country, paperless news delivery systems have existed in one form or another for roughly two decades. Most common is the website, which when it first emerged in the mid-1990s was quickly regarded by local community newspapers as an add-on, and not a replacement for the paper product. Now, we see much energy and money invested in tablet and mobile editions, before a critical mass of the folks in a particular community show a critical need or desire to consume it.
I’ve long argued that you could produce a sheet-fed newspaper published on a 19th century press today…if your readers wanted the news that way. There have never been as many newspapers published in this country as there are at this moment, the era of the supposedly disappearing newspaper. And it doesn’t have everything to do with being outdated or backwards.
Wireless is poor in rural areas, so readers take their news on paper. Plus, smaller communities frequently have a personal relationship with the staff of their local paper. They are ensured of responsiveness because they see them in the grocery store or post office picking up mail.
At the other end of readership demographic are the 20- to 35-year-old urbanites tuned to their devices to consume journalism. And even within that, their eyeball time bounces from local story to international one; the device is a delivery system that has no loyalty to brand, only to the owner’s wants.
So you have journalism not only competing with other journalism, but with food reviews, a viral video and the myriad of social media or texts from friends and family.
The community newspaper allows for focus on the object—the audience itself, interruption-free. The Young and the Restless hasn’t survived since 1973 because it didn’t keep pace with its community. It knew them then and knows them now.
Just ask the lobster fishers.