Media executives love the word “content”. It’s a rallying cry, an end and a means. However we tend to ignore the fact that there are two definitions to the word. We’re quite familiar with content as a noun –- material held within a website, app or other medium. “Content is king”. User-generated content. Dynamic content, and so on.

We’re much less familiar with “content” as an adjective – satisfaction. Willingness to accept something as it is. In a state of peace. While we may not use this form of the word nearly as much, there is no hiding the fact that we are quite content as media executives.

We are content to fill our sites with repurposed offline “news” (we’ve embraced a “pdf-mentality”).
We’re content to measure our success in eyeballs.
We’re content (actually, “excited”) to see incremental growth in digital ad sales.

In South Africa at least, we’re seemingly content to have our top ranking news site (in terms of traffic) sitting in 10th place behind international sites with little local insight.

The problem is that our “contentedness” with the status-quo will be our downfall.

I’m not the first person (and I certainly won’t be the last) to say that the nature of news has changed, and that publishers need to evolve to meet the needs of the modern reader. But there’s so much focus on the negative – the “downfall of media giants” – that I think that we’re losing sight of an incredible opportunity.

As media executives, we have the capacity and tools needed to not just help our businesses thrive, but to redefine what “news” is, how it’s collected and consumed. Radio changed the world. TV changed it again. The internet is already doing it at a blinding pace, and I don’t think anyone will disagree that we were caught off guard by the impact it would have on our traditional media businesses, or that we’ve been struggling to retake the reins ever since.

It’s now time to stop trying to catch up, to observe trends, to learn, and to help media consumers define and define the future.

It’s time to stop trying to bend a digital world to the will of our established business model, and instead to define how we can evolve to thrive in a new age. We must continuously learn, test and adapt to meet changing needs, and this process will begin when we renew our focus on the consumer, and how they’re finding the information they seek in the digital age (hint: it certainly isn’t turning pages over coffee at breakfast anymore, or waiting for a trusted voice on the TV at 6 pm).

Through the reader’s eyes

Consider my news consumption and preferences. I live in a suburb of Cape Town in South Africa, and I collect my news from a variety of sources (as people do around the world).

I read the national newspapers at work, but rarely visit the websites – many are pay-walled, and it’s largely a reproduction of offline articles (pdf-thinking), with a few more pictures and sometimes the ability to comment or share. I’ve found that I go to the site because of the brand – it is the source for South African news – but more and more, I’m visiting less and less.

I’ve come to realize that much of what’s touted as news is only newsworthy because it appears on that publication’s website – the brand makes it relevant, not the content.

Then there’s broadcast... something funny happens whenever national TV or listen to radio (a major medium throughout Africa). It feels like I’m reading the newspaper with video and sound. It’s a more engaging experience for those reasons, but it’s still primarily a duplication of the morning newspaper content, with updates. This makes sense because the companies that own the national papers are media empires – they own the major TV and radio stations too. It’s certainly not hyper-local. It’s designed to suit the needs of broad demographics, meaning content is anything but customized for my personal preferences.

Furthermore, going to the websites of these broadcast channels reveals an “entertainment/news” mix that leans heavily towards promotion of entertainment, on-air personalities and shows. It’s not a digital “news” source.

Let’s step away from the national scene, and go local – I often read my local newspaper. It’s a weekly publication and very focused on what’s happening in my community. I learn about local crime, events, infrastructure work and more, but the digital version isn’t very robust. As a weekly publication, the paper is wary of “scooping itself” – online updates are kept to a minimum out of fear that they’ll result in lower offline sales, and because it’s a smaller organization with smaller budgets, it can’t invest heavily in strong technical resources.

We can go even more “micro” (and I do on a daily basis, along with countless people worldwide) – filling the local digital void are “micro-publishers”.

They’re local bloggers and startups that see a gap in the content provided by the big players and established sites. They sometimes have local sources (schools, police, sports organizations) but more often than not, they end up reproducing content from the same companies they’re trying to compete with in order to keep content on their site fresh.

Finally, if I’m looking for the truly latest news, I don’t go to a news site at all. I turn to social media. When protests were recently planned in Cape Town, I watched hashtags on Twitter for the latest developments.

I visit multiple Facebook pages regularly for the latest on local arts and community events. It’s an excellent source of information, but it’s also incredibly dispersed – multiple sites, pages, hashtags and aggregators.

I essentially have to build my own social media news outlet.

As you can see, I live in a fractured world where I’m left to play hide and seek with the news I want to consume (and my needs still aren’t really being met). I see this as a problem, but as I mentioned earlier, more-so as an opportunity.

The nine most visited digital news resources in my country are international. That’s a significant gap that can be filled by a forward-thinking media executive.

Yes, content is still the key. But we need to stop thinking about it as the content we want to publish and instead consider the content that our consumers want to receive. It’s hyper-local, and technology isn’t simply the delivery method, it’s the means of determining what to deliver.

News for demographics of One

Like it or not, Facebook knows us.

We’re served Ads and receive “promoted content” based on the things we say, “Like” and do, where we’re located and what we’ve clicked (as well as other factors we likely don’t know about). The result is a sometimes annoying, but effective approach that’s being refined almost daily.

So, if that’s possible for Facebook, why isn’t it possible for news? Consider my consumption habits again.

Why can’t a news site recognize who I am and serve me content based on my expressed interests and reading behavior? Why can’t it geo-locate me and serve relevant local content pulled from a variety of sources?

Why can’t it recognize my passion for cycling based on my avid reading of racing news and product reviews?

Why can’t it pull real-time traffic information for me based on my provided commute route? Or tell me about the sale on T-bones at the local grocery shop?

Finally, why can’t it serve me public content from social media sites like Twitter, Google+ or Facebook based on the same parameters?

This is hyper-local news.

It’s based on the idea that I am, as a person, a demographic that can be served based on opt-in behavior and custom algorithms, and that collecting existing, preferred content in one place for easy consumption is in fact providing “news”. I’m not just talking about geography. Despite living approximately 50 metres from me, my neighbor would have different content served to her based on her own behaviours and interests (though there would be common pieces of content between us).

This isn’t a pipe dream. It is custom news content delivery made possible by the technology that the publishing sector is currently content to ignore.

You can likely tell that I’ve spent some time thinking about this gap and the associated opportunity. It’s because these are the exact problems that we encountered with Umuntu Media.

We started out on a similar (I’d argue “more technically nimble”) path as the big publishers. We wanted to be Africa’s source for local news, and began hiring staff writers around the continent to make it happen.

But there’s a reason the big guys elected not to go this way. It’s unmanageable. It’s too much – too many people, and not enough margin to make it sustainable.

So instead of bashing our heads against the wall and driving our company into the ground like so many of our predecessors, we set out to do something different.

We recognized that there are millions of people already creating content online in these places and that all we had to do was engage them with user-friendly technology that allows them to share it in compelling ways. So we became a technology company (though that’s just the beginning).

The result? We had 70 journalists, and their work was generating 500,000 impressions per month on the traditional model.

In our second year we made the pivot to technology provision, and down-sized to 5 content editors. In less than 8 months, we’re generating 68,000,000 impressions per month. We haven’t re-defined news, but we’ve discovered how hyper-local content can and does drive interest and engagement.

We certainly aren’t there yet, but we’re beginning to redefine what news content is, how it’s collected, delivered and consumed. So yes – again – content is key for the future of news. But it is not king, as it’s often shouted today.

In the new, digital publishing world, the platform owner that understands what people want and how they engage is king, and will continue to be as long as he or she is never content.

Image credit: Mimiboard

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