The Mammals of Journalism

Some 65-million years ago, a big hunk of something, either ice or rock or a slushy combination of the two, changed the Earth forever. The crash (or, given that 70% of the planet is covered by water, more likely a splash) triggered tsunami, major tectonic shifts, and atmospheric temperatures just shy of a pizza oven for a couple of days. Then, once things cooled down a bit, the rain of glass shards.

It was not a fun time to be alive, but most of those things that were alive weren’t around long enough to complain about it.

One single shift, and the balance of nature was wiped out. We have remnants of dinosaurs, and know an awful lot about them. But on that day, after a dominant run of tens of millions of years — on that day… they died.

Okay, maybe they didn’t die completely. Their cousins are still with us: the birds. But hardly the world-beaters they once were. The winners of the post-Apocalypse planetary pecking order were the little mammals. Those creatures adaptable enough to regulate their body temperature by hiding underground when it was 500 degrees, and to warm themselves when it got really cool the next couple of years after.

It was the mammals that picked up the pieces, and made something new. They didn’t roam the Earth, they didn’t command the same territory as the lumbering, terrible lizards. But they stuck around.

Winning Small

I thought about those little mammals when I saw this sign, on Facebook:

tribune on air

The sign sits over the door to the new studio built by the Trussville Tribune.

A weekly newspaper, serving three cities with a combined population of less than 40,000 people… has a TV studio.

The great disruption has happened. It didn’t smack the Earth with a blinding blast; rather, it carried its impact more slowly over decades. The internet, and mobile technology, and codecs, and smaller gear that people can afford, and the ubiquity of ways in which live pictures can become zeros and ones and become unscattered again on a device of your choosing… blame them all.

A weekly newspaper has a website, and now it has a TV studio.

The Tribune’s publisher, Scott Buttram, likes to say that the very technologies that have disrupted network television and movie studios and large daily newspapers have also empowered his end of the food chain. The small can feast on the big, because the rules of our media world favor the nimble and the swift.

The Bundle is Dead! Long Live Strands!

Years ago, you likely had a newspaper dropped off on your lawn, maybe your porch if you were lucky. Maybe you went to a box to find one, or a newsstand. What mattered was you were buying the bundle. Some even bragged you were getting ALL the News that was Fit to Print. All in one place.

There were editors that ensured that you got a nice balanced diet of news. Some world perspective, history in the making. The local stuff more likely to affect your pocketbook. Some business and industry news, some items about your schools, the bread and circuses (Food and Sports sections), a dash of opinion from more than one viewpoint, as well as the legal notices and death notices and wedding notices…

You don’t turn to the bundle anymore. Odds are, you turn over in the morning, turn off the alarm on your phone, and check the weather before your feet hit the floor.

“News” has become unbundled. Think about this:

  • You get your weather from an app
  • You get your political news from a couple of sites that present a worldview you find comfortable
  • You get your sports news from blogs
  • You get your business news from a cable network, or some blogs
  • You get your entertainment news from blogs or Twitter
  • You get your local news from a site, maybe
  • You get news about the people you care about from Facebook

Peter Shankman has long preached about the need for Relevance. Nothing is more relevant than the site that lets you choose the people you want to know more about — and which progressively feeds you more and more of that with which you engage.

The consequence of the Great Unbundling is that you no longer have to have a gigantic press, a massive distribution staff, and dozens of employees to get into the news business. You can survive with but a single beat. Own a niche, any niche. And if you want to grow, it might help to find compatible niches to own, but it isn’t a necessity. Because nobody is buying the bundle anymore.

Buying Relevance

So what are they buying?

They are buying exactly what they wanted all along, but without the fuzzy math and the filler.

There are more than a million people in the greater Birmingham metro area. If you wanted to sell someone a Lexus, you could take out an ad on a radio station. A station with a nice healthy rating would get you a 4, which translates into 40,000 listeners at that moment. But that’s just the first pass of the chisel. Of those 40,000:

  • How many of those remaining really are in the target demographic?
  • How many of those remaining really were paying attention at that moment in the quarter-hour?
  • How many of those remaining have been introduced to the message enough times for it to stick? (impressions)
  • How many of those remaining are in the market to buy a car?
  • How many of those remaining are in a financial position to buy a car?

That number gets progressively smaller. Small enough that traditional marketers might laugh. If they weren’t crying. Because now we are approaching the same numbers you can measure online. You didn’t need to “expose” one million potential people to your message. You really wanted to get at those 150 who might buy that car from you.

Which takes us back to Trussville.

The Mammals’ Victory Parade

The Tribune is growing, and as it does it looks less and less like a traditional newspaper. Traditional newspapers sponsor spelling bees — they don’t carry parades. Live.

Trussville Tribune (sponsored content in orange)

Trussville Tribune (sponsored content in orange)

A live, two-camera shoot isn’t cheap, but it isn’t terribly expensive. And at that level in the media food chain, you can find sponsors, because they want to be where their customers are. Relevance.

There is a weather forecast, on video, with a real meteorologist. The forecast doesn’t take long, though, because they are really focused just on parts of northeast Jefferson County (and a little bit of St. Clair.)

The mammals are winning, because they don’t have to eat as much, they can move in a more nimble fashion, and they can survive in a smaller ecosystem. They don’t have to be everything to everyone, they just need to be local and local and local and relevant.

Did I mention local?

The Tribune is one of several dozen weekly newspapers in the state of Alabama. The majority of them can evolve in the same way. All it takes is a content management platform (like WordPress) which plays well with frequent updates, and the willingness to embrace the opportunity.

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