The crude yet brilliant online comic The Oatmeal had a recent strip related to online piracy – inspired by the artist’s frustrated attempts to find a legal source for a show he wanted to buy – that actually had a moral highly relevant to traditional media companies trying to make their way in the new-media world: If you put all your focus on control instead of what your customers want, your customers will go elsewhere for what they want.
I thought it was great, and I wanted to post about it here, but it gets a bit far from the ground I usually stick to – but then the universe once again came through for me and showed me Jim Romenesko’s item about a Forbes piece that excerpts a much, much, much longer New York Times Magazine story and got a huge amount of traffic online. THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED! A journalist-level parallel!
From what Forbes writer Kashmir Hill sent Romenesko about her story on the Times story:
“Charles Duhigg’s piece is a masterful look at how Target gathers information about its customers and mines it to keep them loyal and better market to them. But as a writer who has covered the privacy beat for four years, what leaped out at me as the gold mine of the piece was the anecdote about Target data-mining its way into customers’ wombs so effectively that it picked up on a teen’s pregnancy before her father did. I ran with that anecdote and the sexy privacy issue Duhigg dug up — Target’s use of predictive analytics — distilling that from the larger piece for my privacy-interested audience. This is not a new or surprising practice in the world of online journalism – what has caught people’s attention is Forbes’ transparency. Thanks to our analytics being public, you can see the avalanche of social media love it triggered and the enviable million page views it garnered.”
So essentially, buried inside a nine-page story was a juicy nugget that had the potential to draw a huge audience. But that’s the thing – it was buried. And it had a dull headline, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets.” It’s information people would want, if only they knew it was there. Enter Hill:
“I suspect I drove a ton of traffic to the New York Times that they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten because they hadn’t sold their story quite as well as I did and didn’t create a short version of it that was easy to share and digest online. (Advice the NYT should consider is having their own bloggers tackle long pieces like this and chunk them up for the online crowd – a tactic the Wall Street Journal has effectively employed.)”
The difference between the comic strip and the Times/Forbes story is the artist knew what he wanted and the people who read the privacy story did not, but in both cases the originator of the content screwed up – in the comic strip, HBO made it impossible for the artist to find a legal source for “Game of Thrones” on DVD, limiting its audience to people willing to subscribe to the entire HBO universe; and the Times buried its best information in a story so long and dense that only its existing dedicated magazine customer base was likely to find it.
As journalists, we often don’t control a lot of business aspects of our industry, including whether our sites have paywalls or home delivery is available to everyone who wants it. But we are in charge of our own stories and photos — and making the best of it easy to find.