Content distribution and what is a newspaper?

Content distribution has been at the forefront of my mind for probably 25 years. Whether I served as an editor, a publisher, or heck, even as a teacher, how content gets to the right people is top of mind for me.

I had an … encounter about 17 or 18 years ago. Hired to be the top editor of a daily newspaper (the only time I’ve NOT also been publisher), I had a curmudgeonly publisher who referred to himself as a late adopter.

He had a simple and emphatic rule. Nothing appeared in any digital format until after it had appeared in print. I lasted less than three months there.

I think though, he was more scared of what was happening in the newspaper world. One night, at a Chamber event, after the booze had flowed a bit much, he proclaimed to me he would never cannibalize print to push digital. It wasn’t too long after my departure that he was replaced by the ownership group.

During my brief time, an incident occurred.

The town – about 45,000 people – was a bedroom community for Nashville. The main drag through town was the only way to get to a couple other bedroom communities. So lots of traffic passed down the main thoroughfare.

One Friday at about 4:30 p.m., we caught word that the main drag was shut down. A guy holed up in a house with several weapons, the cops were there, and a stand-off ensued.

At about 5, the PIO for the police department told me it would likely be several more hours. So I made a decision.

We sent word out via Twitter and Facebook. We posted it to the website, which triggered an email notification. All this was the first time, ever, that breaking news appeared in digital rather than print, at this paper. The icing on the cake? I also – for the first time ever for the paper – sent a text alert.

We had the basic news, but we also provided alternate route data, letting folks know these alternate routes my take an hour longer getting you home, but if you came through town, you’d likely be sitting at a stand-still for four or five more hours.

Livid.

I know of no other description of the publisher at that moment. He didn’t scream at me, but apparently he screamed at others about me.

But he lost the point.

The flip side of content distribution

Later, I’m editor and publisher of a media group that includes a daily newspaper.

Now our community had the number 1 and number 2 ranked high school boys’ basketball teams in the nation and when they met in district play, the fireworks were real. The game gave our community some pretty positive national attention.

content distribution
Twitter has become critically important for content distribution.

A few days later, I’m speaking to a group of high schoolers at one of the two schools. I asked the kids who were not at the game how they kept up with what was going on during the game.

Almost without fail, the answer was Twitter. I pushed.

“Can you be more specific?” I asked. They gave me the name of a specific twitter account they followed.

“Where does he work?” The newspaper of course.

“So, you got your news about the game from the newspaper.”

The very real problem, as kids kind of looked at each other, is that they did not view the high school sports reporter’s Twitter account, and he live tweeted the game, as being “the newspaper.”

So what?

Boiled down, content distribution is about one thing and one thing only. Getting content into the right hands in the right format.

In the case of those high school kids, high school sports information via Twitter was the content they wanted the way they wanted it. It was extremely successful.

The fact is that during a period of declines, we saw an increase in print subscriptions, digital subscriptions, social media followers, and all measurements of web traffic. Heck, we even launched a digital replica of the daily print edition, selling more than 4,000 subscriptions to that.

Print. Digital. Replicas. Social. Podcasts. Blogs. Email. Text.

All kinds of content and each was treated differently. Podcasts were about analysis, deep dives and interviews. Text and twitter were about quick notifications – there’s a wreck blocking the road. Facebook was about engaging in conversations. So on.

Understanding how the web reader and the print reader were after different things (even if they were the same person reading both) was a critical part of our success with overall readership.

Challenges remained. How do you generate reader revenue off 14- and 15-year-olds following the sports guy on Twitter?

What is the newspaper (or TV station, website, etc.)?

My former publisher took a myopic view about distribution and about just what is the newspaper.

In my mind, he was focused on “the paper” and not on the news. The limited thinking only addressed the content distribution needs of one group of people – a small and shrinking group – those who want a rolled up paper thrown in their drive every morning.

Now, I’ve lamented the loss of print, but the print reader is still an important group. However, too many people were left out with few distribution options available to them.

WikiGap volunteers working on creating new content in Macedonian on women.

Rather a focus on content – on news – would have allowed the paper to adapt to digital technologies, deploy social, email, video, audio, and text, and reach new batches of readers in a variety of exciting ways.

Don’t get me wrong. Print readers are insanely loyal, but they are largely an aging audience. Focusing on just one distribution channel is limiting.

Now what?

Sometimes, I advise self-published authors to focus on a couple of areas when self-promoting. I generally advise them to pick one or two social media outlets, and maybe email, and really master those. After you have those down pat, consider expanding.

Keep it simple and focus on creating great content.

I had reservations when Gannett put iPhones in the hands of thousands of reporters and demanded they started doing video.  Admittedly, since we weren’t trained to make videos, I was skeptical, but let me tell you, a minute clip of kids playing football or firefighters battling a blaze earned a huge audience. It was the type of content that was desired.

When it comes to distribution, I follow KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid.

For some audiences, such as stamp Collectors, a quality print publication is still preferred.
  1. Evaluate your content. Is it a case study? Can it also be a testimonial? Success story? Blog post? Podcast fodder? A video? Get the mileage and reach a larger audience. Remember this is about a lot more than repurposing content. It is about repurposing distribution to reach expanded audiences.
  2. Evaluate your skills. I’m not comfortable editing video, so it is an area I tend not to go. I can watch Youtube, but I can’t make a video. And when I need video for a client, I hire it out. Play to your skills while taking time to sharpen other skills. And don’t be afraid to get an expert.
  3. Evaluate your audience. If your audience is on Twitter and you don’t have a Twitter account, you better get one, learn how to use it, and get busy. Or hire someone. In the world of stamp collecting, which is largely made up of older people with time and money, journals are online, but there is still a large print audience. If you have a stamp publication, you have to be in print.
  4. Be consistent. Back in the print newspaper days, if Mrs. Jones got her paper between 5:15 and 5:30 every morning, and on this one day it doesn’t show up, at 5:45 she’s hunting your ass down. People are creatures of habit. My digitized Linn’s Stamp News comes every Friday. Michelle Garrett’s PR newsletter is monthly – at the same time. Train your audience.

Content distribution should not be an afterthought. “I’ll just throw it on Twitter” is not a strategy. Take your time, evaluate your 3s – content, skills and audience – and develop a real, honest-to-goodness content distribution plan.

If you need help with your content distribution, feel free to reach out. I’m at clay@clay-morgan.com.

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