Colleen Otte

New Lanes: Driving Content

Whirrr. Squeeeak! Swoosh. Kerplunk!

These are the sounds of a bicycle’s wheels spinning across pavement, its brakes screeching to a slower speed, a newspaper being whipped through the air and then subsequently plopping onto someone’s doorstep. These sounds, according to my dad, are the familiar sounds from when he used to help his “big bro” complete his neighborhood newspaper route. In exchange, his brother would typically buy him a cold refreshment or a candy bar, or perhaps set aside a small bundle of cash for him on pay day. The payback was never huge, and the repetitive paper-tossing was sometimes tedious beneath the blistering summer sun. Yet, my dad jokes that it was a simple task that kept his young teenage-self out of trouble during the boredom of his summer break.

Years later, he would take a job as a mailman, delivering anything from residents’ bills to their magazine subscriptions. He said he enjoyed distributing people’s mail by car and foot, despite the sometimes long, lonely periods of travel time and the occasional ankle-nipping dog.

A similarly thankless job would likely be rising before the sun and climbing into a still-dark newspaper delivery truck to distribute to the area newsstands alongside sidewalks and grocery store checkout lanes.

Today, however, we might not hear the whirring of wheels or squeaking of brakes during the delivery process. Rather, it might sound more like this:

Yes, you read that right—silence. Or perhaps, the faint click of a computer mouse or soft tap on a touchscreen. But gone are the days when it was necessary to invest in delivery transport and personnel to effectively circulate the news. Now, almost all that’s required is internet access.

For BuzzFeed, as Noah Robischon put it in his article for Fast Company, “the newsstand (and sometimes even the printing press) is your social feed, and its delivery trucks are you sharing a story.”

Robischon spoke with Dao Nguyen, the publisher in charge of BuzzFeed, who agreed.

“Traditionally (publishing) meant owning a printing press and dealing with delivery trucks and newsstands,” said Nguyen. “Whereas with digital media, getting your content to the public is all about your technical platform, your distribution plans, on social networks or other technical platforms.”

Perhaps nowadays distribution involves less delivery trucks and operates instead more like a taxicab. Taxis drive visitors to the destinations they wish to see; publishers bring readers the news they want to read.

If a cab driver drops riders off at the wrong location, it’s unlikely the passengers will use that taxi company’s service again in the future. The same principle applies to news organizations: If they don’t provide the content people want to consume, their readers will likely turn to another outlet to get it.

Image: Flickr, Rob Pongsajapan
Image: Flickr, Rob Pongsajapan

Patrick LaForge, senior editor of The New York Times, also directs the newsroom’s Express Team, which is responsible for quickly developing articles when a topic gathers steam on social media.

According to LaForge in the article,“Sweetheart, Get Me Readers,”  this new, somewhat unexpected type of coverage from The New York Times is the result of a new reality and reporters and editors can no longer solely make the call on what is newsworthy.

“The reader controls the news agenda much more than 30 years ago,” said LaForge.

But LaForge refuses to consider this quicker content “clickbait.” He explained that while some competitors publish such stories and push them via social media because they base their business model purely on traffic, The New York Times primarily wants to entice more readers to pay for digital subscriptions. Now that print advertising revenue has withered, he said such subscriptions have become a critical source of revenue.

Similarly, according to Nguyen, BuzzFeed does not operate with the goal to produce viral content. It, too, wants its audience to engage with stories they like to read and viral success is simply a byproduct.

“The stereotype of a traditional reporter is, ‘Only what I think matters and what I think is important matters and I’m not going to look at any other signals.’ And that’s, I guess, one kind of intuition,” said Nguyen. “But the humility that comes with, ‘Oh, I’m just learning about my audience, learning what is interesting.’ That is something we actively seek out in people.”

So, it appears the most successful media companies actively ask themselves what the populace wants to see and then respond to what they find—just as the best-tipped cab drivers are conversational, inquiring what brings passengers to their city and how they’ve enjoyed their stays.

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