Cross-platform content: The new imperative

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This post is adapted from a presentation I gave at the 2011 CDS-Global Management Advisory Board meeting, which included executives from Hearst, Conde Nast and Forbes.

Media companies are being asked to get more out of their content development efforts as they extend and enhance their publications and brands across a broader array of distribution channels. Just as the Web did not replace print, smartphones and tablets will not replace the Web – this is not a zero-sum content game.

As distribution platforms evolve, the landscape is changing dramatically. Forrester forecasts that the number of tablet users will grow from 26 million this year to more than 82 million by 2015. A report this week from Pricewaterhouse Coopers projects that digital circulation revenues for consumer magazines will rise to $611 million by 2015, up from $4 million in 2010.

What’s the impact on publishers? Supporting more platforms and channels means more content to produce. Not an easily achieved mandate when declining print revenues warrant tighter budgets and smaller editorial staffs.

What’s the answer? Publishers need to get smarter about their content development efforts. We must continue to explore creative ways to repackage everything we produce across multiple platforms. When I worked at IDG, we called this approach “skinning the pig.” Nothing from your reporting, research or data gathering efforts goes to waste, unless it’s completely irrelevant to your audience. (In which case you should question why you’re investing in it in the first place.)

Skinning the pig requires a rethinking of all aspects of your business, from journalism principles to content creation to organizational structures.

Journalism

Twitter is a news platform. Think about that. Whether it’s a former White House staffer posting the first tweet about Osama bin Laden’s death or New York Times reporter Brian Stelter’s Twitter-based reporting on the Joplin tornadoes, Twitter has become a legitimate platform for breaking news.

    

This is one aspect of what The Economist’s GL Austin calls “journalistic nuclear physics”– the concept of “blasting the atomic unit of journalism, the article, into its constituent quarks, and reassembling them as something else.”  Austin posits that when none of the constraints of traditional media – format, deadlines, etc. – applies, everything can be different, including how stories are packaged and distributed to an audience.

The Knight Digital Media Center offers another phrase to describe the trend toward content disaggregation: a Lego approach to storytelling. The concept, put forth by blogger Amy Gahran, involves creating discrete story “modules” that work in different ways across different formats. Mobile users, for example, might want smaller chunks of content to consume quickly on a smaller screen. On the Web, “each story module would include navigation and context indicating that it’s part of a bigger story or theme. This would make it easy and inviting to explore the wider story,” Gahran wrote.

Content

Social media and mobile are significant driving forces behind concepts such as the Lego approach. Mobile in particular presents new opportunities to repackage and redeploy content in useful and innovative ways for consumers. Publishers continue to explore ways to expand beyond digital replicas of print magazines, as they learn more about the content consumption habits of smartphone and tablet users.

Utility apps are one option that’s gaining momentum. These are what Hearst Magazines’ EVP John Loughlin calls  “standalone consumer experiences” – apps that help a user accomplish a task, be it shopping, cooking, traveling, working out or virtually any other daily activity. Martha Stewart this week released a handful of purpose-built recipe apps around cookies and smoothies and cocktails

Special issues are another option for repackaging content for smartphone or tablet users. Theme-based collections of content are a no-brainer for publishers with deep archives or those that already produce buyers’ guides of products or services in their market.

PaidContent this week noted that 28 of Conde Nast’s 37 apps to date are utility or special edition apps.

A third way to repackage content in an app format is through RSS feeds. Publishers such as The Atlantic are pulling RSS feeds from their website into a packaged app that delivers breaking news, videos, or blog content to mobile users.

A fourth example is the “single,” which is emerging as a way to preserve the concept of narrative, long-form journalism with fresh packaging. ProPublica has published a series of articles as Kindle Singles, and the early returns are positive

These are all examples of what some on the industry are calling “content extensions.” In March, Hearst hired David Kang is its first creative director of content extensions. "By reimagining the magazines as brands, the content can extend across multiple platforms to create new print books, ebooks, digital tools, mobile apps ... that work to build and extend Hearst's content franchises,” Kang told Mediapost.

Workflows

As content types and formats evolve, so do the workflows for creating the content. More magazines and newspapers are adopting a Web-first approach to publishing – even long-running print brands such as The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor and Vance Publishing.

  • The Atlantic attributed its first profit in decades (last year’s fourth quarter) in large part to a 70 percent increase in digital revenues, the result of a digital-first strategy.
  • The Christian Science Monitor took the “web-first” mantra to an extreme – abandoning its daily print edition for daily news on the web. It changed the entire culture of its newsroom with a four-pronged strategy that included increasing the frequency of Web posts, emphasizing SEO, and monitoring Google trends for hot topics.
  • Vance, a trade publisher of agriculture titles such as Pork magazine, two years ago deployed a web-first strategy that effectively reversed its editorial workflow: instead of researching and writing a lengthy print article, then repurposing it for the Web, writers now will post a first take of breaking news at 200 words, following with an update at 400 words, then producing a longer second-day story that is subsequently repurposed for the print publication.

As the culture changes, so must the systems needed to support it.  At the crux of this shift lies the content management system. Poynter’s Matt Thompson had a great post this week about how content management systems are evolving. His key point: “There’s now a genuine expectation that a CMS will play nicely with videos stored on YouTube, or comments managed by Disqus, or live chats embedded from CoverItLive. Other environments such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr come with their own suites of tools. And increasingly, what we call a ‘content management system’ is actually a combo of multiple tightly-integrated systems.”

Gehren from the Knight Digital Media Center also chimed in on the evolving CMS:

We need tools that automate cross-linking between story modules, as well as much of the navigation and design that visually ties together collections of modules into a story. Simply generating an index page from a tag or category is not sufficiently engaging or usable.

Such a tool would turn your collection of story modules into an obvious mosaic, not scattered scraps or a dry list. It would present your content in a way that allows people entering a collection at any point, via any module (no matter how small), on any device, to easily find and explore other parts of that collection—and to see how they’re related.

Org structures

The cross-platform imperative also requires changes to the organization structure itself. Forbes has been remaking its newsroom to suit the vision of Chief Product Officer Lewis D’Vorkin. At the core of this “new newsroom” is audience-centric data, which is shared across the organization. “The data forms a powerful feedback loop that informs departments in every corner of our company — and the new breed of entrepreneurial journalist that is key to powering our content engine,” D’Vorkin writes.

The New Newsroom, he adds, “is about collaboration — between editorial, product, design, production — and, yes, the advertising sales and marketing departments, too.”

One organizational concept that was unheard of just a few years ago is the inclusion of external contributors – including the community you’re serving. Connecticut’s Register Citizen, owned by the Journal Register Company, last year opened a community newsroom – housed within its editorial offices – that includes workstations (and coffee) for local bloggers and citizen journalists.

Public Radio International’s Michael Skoler, writing for Nieman Reports, says community is “the most powerful emerging business driver in the new economy.” He adds: “News organizations need to think of themselves first as gathering, supporting and empowering people to be active in a community with shared values, and not primarily as creators of news that people will consume.”

How to succeed: 6 tips

Here are six tips on how to create a successful cross-platform business:  

  1. Test and learn.  Publishers can’t afford to pursue big, bet-the-company initiatives that offer no clear payoff.  Start small, testing different content types, revenue models and price points (for paid content). This is not just an R&D mandate: Give all your employees the freedom and courage to experiment.
  2. Let the data guide you. Track your experiments religiously. Find the combination of metrics that best indicate progress toward your objectives. Allocate more resources toward the projects that are working and either kill the underperformers or, if they’re strategically important, find ways to improve them.
  3. Break down the silos. Cross-platform content requires cross-functional collaboration. Developers need a better understanding of editorial and the audience so they can build better products. Marketers need better insight into editorial products so they can promote them. Editors need to understand corporate objectives and the financial feasibility of new projects and products. This doesn’t require a dismantling of the church/state divide, but it does require a more open approach to content development.
  4. Be consistent with your brand across platforms. The structure and tone of a tweet is much different than a long-form magazine article, but editors’ behavior on social media must not stray too far from the overall message of your publication. For initiatives that stray far from the core, consider launching under a different brand.
  5. Differentiate with quality. The pendulum is swinging back from search-optimized dreck toward quality content. Invest accordingly in quality as you extend your content into new channels. As Journal Register CEO John Paton recently noted, “Lousy journalism on multiple platforms is just lousy journalism in multiple ways.”
  6. Monetize everything. At the end of the day, it’s all about driving revenue. No projects should be allowed to go forward without a clear business benefit. During the industry’s transition from print to digital, creating a real business case for new content development is simply a matter of survival.

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