The Magical Elves of New Media

Last week I made mention that USA Today’s new media strategy includes a staff reduction of 9%, which is a common headline. Jenni Spinner responded with a great phrase: “New media is produced by magical elves that work for free.”

Now, I realize that there are realities of business economics. Staff reductions are a fact of life in today’s world, I’m not going to pretend to be surprised by that. But I do often wonder about the decision process that lead to the pairing of a new strategy with a staff reduction.

Are these new strategies chosen because there are sophisticated business models behind them? Because they have done extensive research with their audience, gone through experiments in the wild, combed through metrics to distinguish perception vs reality? And after the result of this research and insight, came up with a solid plan to preserve the best of the past, and leverage new technologies to extend that value?

Or, are these new strategies and staff cuts enacted because, by traditional metrics, those businesses can reduce costs? In other words, are they choosing new tactics based on old measures, and calling the difference between the two numbers a “strategy.”

Too many new media strategies rely on the following ideas, among others:

  • An algorithm that “aggregates” relevant content.
  • Leveraging non-employee content contributors.
  • Hoping the social media and “viral” marketing efforts will drive traffic.

Now, each of these items can be very effective, and media companies would be smart to pursue them. But it can also be a dangerous road if chosen for the wrong reasons.

For example: if a company suddenly embraces social media simply because they don’t want to hire more marketing directors, and can find savings by reducing their existing marketing staff by 9%.

Why does this concern me? Well, recently I have been considering how many current day brands have such power and esteem because they continue to leverage the quality of the work they created over the course of decades. Their brands are extensions of that quality, and it grows in strength as time moves on.

The flipside of this is cutting the quality of ones content to save costs; Of making their product less unique in the marketplace in order to follow immediate trends. To rely on those outside of the brand to create the content, to create the buzz. In the end – whose identity is it? How deeply etched is it?

I definitely understand the value of leveraging a network of content creators; of the power of a distributed social channels to drive attention and engagement. But I also think that brands are wise to keep an eye down the long road ahead. Where do these decisions lead beyond the next quarter, the next bonus cycle?

When we dilute the quality of the content, and the strength of our marketing skillset, we are not building the future, we are putting the very pillars of our companies at risk. Clearly, I am a huge fan of the world that new media has given us. But I am also appreciative of what have built publishing and media brands into well-known names: quality content, and a deep connection to their industries. As these companies move forward to reshape the economics of what they do, I simply hope they keep an eye on who they are becoming, and the lifetime value of their investment – measured in years, not days.