Skin in the media game: Smart investing in the attention economy

Ian Ransley, via Flickr (CC license)
Do you treat online media like a spectator sport, or do you really have skin in this game?

Recently, my Poynter colleague Roy Peter Clark caused a stir with his article Your Duty To Read the Paper. There, he wrote:

“I pose this challenge to you: It is your duty as a journalist and a citizen to read the newspaper — emphasis on paper, not pixels.

“…And here’s why: There is one overriding question about the future of journalism that no one can yet answer: How will we pay for it? …Until we create some new business models in support of the journalism profession, we’ve got to support what we have.

“…I have no proof, but a strong feeling, that even journalists, especially young ones working at newspapers, don’t read the paper. That feels wrong to me — and self-defeating. So join me, even you young whipper-snappers. Read the paper. Hold it in your hand. Take it to the john. Just read it.”

Oh yeah, that piece drew a lot of criticism. It’s also generated useful discussion, in the 83 (and counting) comments to that post and elsewhere.

This may surprise my regular readers, but I don’t think Clark is entirely wrong. Part of what he’s saying is that if you’re in the media business, eating your own dog food is crucial context. I’d add that you should not just eat one flavor, but the whole damn menu.

Here’s my take: If you work for a media organization that publishes a print product, you should indeed read the print edition regularly. You should also read the online edition regularly — including the comments and forums (if any), and explore the multimedia and interactive offerings.

But don’t stop there…

Subscribe to your company’s podcasts, vidcasts, and feeds. (If you don’t yet have an MP3 player or use a feed reader, get one and start now.) Check out the mobile offerings — not just the mobile version of your company’s site, but also mobile services (including SMS alerts) and tools for posting content from camera phones like photos, video, or audio. Participate in public conversations hosted by your employer by making public comments on its stories, blogs, and forums.

Do these things even if — perhaps especially if — certain aspects of your operations aren’t making much money yet.

Here’s why: If your online operations aren’t making much money, and if you want your company to stay in business so you can keep your paycheck, then it’s YOUR BUSINESS (not a moral imperative, just smart business) to figure out what your company is missing or doing wrong. Then offer constructive solutions or new options to try, backed up with first-hand experience about your range of current offerings.

In any field, but especially media, it’s important to have some skin in the game. Normally people say that to refer to making a personal financial investment in your company (from buying shares to buying and using products. But we’re also in an attention economy, so we all “invest” in media ventures by deciding where we put our attention.

I would challenge Clark on this point: Most journalists already know how to read a newspaper. They already have that context, they know how that works and what to expect. If you have limited time AND limited experience with your company’s full range of offerings, it’s probably more useful to invest your attention in gaining new experience. So don’t make a special effort to read the print paper. Instead, invest in learning something new about what your company offers.

The fact is, I know many media pros who still don’t use a feed reader, subscribe and listen to podcasts, or use mobile content and services. Also, many journalists simply don’t bother to explore interactive or database-centric features, participate in public conversations via comments or forums, use social media or online collaborative tools like wikis, or even check out how their content is getting picked up and positioned by Google, Yahoo, and Technorati. The sad part is, some of these media pros actually seem proud of their limited online experience and interest; or they believe that mere theoretical knowledge about online options will suffice.

There is damn little chance that any news orgs’ online or mobile operations will start making serious money until most of the staff has a rich, ongoing, first-hand experience of everything on offer. That, I think, will provide the culture shift that can steer the business safely into the future.

So put some skin in the game. Really. You, personally. Step outside your media comfort zone, and go where your market is going. (Not where they are today, but where they’re heading — which includes spending more time with 20-somethings, teens, and tweens and actually learning from them.)

Also, learn from media ventures that are already making money online — especially niche content operations. There are profitable lessons and models that can apply, and journalists and ad sales staff alike should learn them.

Clark isn’t entirely wrong: Having skin in the game really does count, and it is a crucial job skill for media pros. His specific advice for practicing that skill is maybe only 90% wrong. (And I say that with all due respect, Roy; I really like your work.)

2 thoughts on Skin in the media game: Smart investing in the attention economy

  1. Thanks for the link and a tempered analysis of Roy Peter Clark. I’m one of his biggest fans but that column really underscored everything I see as being wrong with newspapers. I appreciated your thoughts and, more importantly, ideas on ways to make things better.

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