A Third Way for the Media

To combat their decline, maybe traditional media should move from advertising to helping advertisers use its online space for content marketing.What if a media outlet's advertising staff consisted of writers, photographers and graphic designers who produced custom content for clients that ran in clearly designated, but parallel tracks to the outlet's news content?

Far-fetched? In a digital world that rewards content marketing, it may already be a reality, which traditional media have been slow to embrace.

Bill Momary, writing for NetNewsCheck, says traditional media may be off track trying to find ways to monetize their news content. What they should do instead, he suggests, is gear up to help advertisers tell their stories through content marketing published in conjunction with news content.

That could involve advertising departments hiring writers, photographers, videographers and graphic designers to generate compelling content that tells a story about new products or improved customer service. 

The idea splinters the image, held by old-time reporters and editors like me, that news and advertising staffs work in parallel, but separate universes. In the new model hinted at by Momary, the separation would remain, but the skill sets of the news and marketing content generators would be almost identical. Staff on both sides of the newsroom "Iron Curtain" would be looking for fresh, inviting and informative stories to entice readers.

What these new online publications would look like isn't pictured in Momary's blog, but you could imagine a blending not unlike what you see evolving in social media sites. Except in the case of online news outlets, there would be a built-in acceptance of seeing news and marketing content side by side, unlike on Facebook, which may have spoiled a generation of original users by making its platform available for free. 

Momary wonders aloud whether news reporters would worry about being outdone by their marketing content brethren in producing stories and videos that attract wider attention. There is some basis for concern. An important part of the job performed by traditional news media is to cover the mundane workings of government. Legitimate, factual coverage of city councils, school boards and even legislatures already tends to get shunted aside for more eye-catching coverage, even when it isn't real news.

However, the ability to watch the clever or audacious video clip already exists. The difference in what Momary envisions is that these temptations would exist on the same URL and online platform as regular news content. 

As more newspapers shrink their physical presence and erect pay walls to their online content, their long-term viability remains in doubt. The New York Times pay wall has had the effect of making online subscriptions more attractive, though its online advertising remains just so-so. Papers of a lot less esteem may find pay walls as much a deterrent to readership as a boost to the bottom line.

Citizen journalism sounds good as a way to maintain investigative reporting, but may not be a sustainable alternative, even if it could muster the talented volunteers needed to replicate a good newspaper staff. Collaborative journalism, in which public relations professionals work with reporters and editors to ferret out and develop stories, holds promise, but also poses risks.

The Momary Plan of letting news and marketing content generators coexist side-by-side, while helping their publication prosper, seems like a much more palatable and promising solution. The question is whether the media will give this idea a try before potential advertisers convert their own websites and online newsrooms into powerful publishing houses with their own readership.