I grew up with the Vietnam War on TV. Every night Walter Cronkite bringing bad news from South Asia.
As a result, I’ve never been a fan of the news. Even today, I believe that all media, including the news, exists for one thing—advertising revenue. No advertising revenue, no “if it bleeds it leads.”
No, you can’t stop the news from happening. You can, however, change what kind of news is delivered by what you consume.
Earlier this year in Charlotte, two new “news-type” digital brands emerged from out of the shadow of traditional media. Charlotte Five was born at the Charlotte Observer, a newspaper that has enjoyed being king of Charlotte news since 1886. Despite its longevity, however, the Observer, like all other print news, has seen its world turn upside down since 2000. The idea for Charlotte Five was to publish five daily “soft” news stories via digital to the burgeoning younger demographic in Charlotte who weren’t buying the paper. They used social media to distribute the content and hired a couple of youngsters to run the show. Ted Williams was part of that original brain trust at The Observer. Only, Ted saw things slightly differently, and when his ideas were scrapped, he decided to take the concept out on his own. Literally. With his own money out of his own space where he launched Charlotte Agenda. Meanwhile, Corey Inscoe was working hard to help C5 gain traction.
I know both Corey and Ted. They’re both industrious young men. Newspaper guys. The biggest difference is that one still works for the newspaper, and one is an entrepreneur. (Disclosure: I’m sure there are other big differences too, I don’t know either of them that well.)
Before we go on, let’s take a quick look at how we got here.
In the early 2000s, the digital age was well underway. All major news outlets had websites that they’d update every day. These sites were nothing like the news websites you see today. For example, there wasn’t a ton of advertising on them back then because they didn’t know how to monetize the web. News websites were supplementary to the main media channel whether that was radio, TV, or print. However, once analytics caught up, media companies realized that they could count how many people were visiting their websites—and advertising started to appear on them shortly after. As far as content was concerned, these media companies had AP Style trained reporters and writers on staff who could fill a day’s worth of news. Then they’d plug that content into their websites. Advertising revenue was coming in everywhere. Life was pretty good.
It took a while for Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006) to become mainstream in America, and I personally remember as recently as 2009 how both were routinely mocked by the big media companies as being disruptive nuisances.
Then the first iPhone launched in 2007, and that’s when things got really interesting. The functionality of the iPhone combined with the real-time connectivity of these new “social” media meant that anyone with a phone was now something like a reporter. And God knows, everyone wants to be a scoop. Then in January 2009 this happened:
The US Airways Flight 1549 incident changed news forever. It legitimized mobile and social media as news gathering and sharing technologies that required serious attention. By 2011, every news station had a Twitter account and by 2013 Twitter handles began appearing on reporter’s bylines. But still, anyone with a phone and a good data plan could report on “breaking” news, so Twitter came out with a “Verified” mark to help us know who was legitimate. Whew.
With social media going mainstream, along with the realization that virtually everyone can write, news-type media like Mashable and Huffington Post began popping up all over the internet alongside traditional, “credible” news publications. And these new media outlets weren’t just reporting on important breaking news, they were sharing all kinds of interesting content. Stuff that most traditional publications would steer away from. And guess what? People loved it. With rich analytics to track visitors, hits to a website were the golden ticket to raking in the advertising revenue.
Advertising follows eyeballs. And eyeballs started shifting away from traditional media to digital. And not just to the traditional media brands, either.
Suddenly there was a massive demand for content. Brands like Forbes started pumping out more content via digital than their traditional print publications could handle. Only, no one wanted to hire more writers. They were still trying to monetize in the new digital world order, after all. So these publications started recruiting smart people from the business sector to write articles for them in exchange for exposure based on the credibility of the brand they were writing for. Everyone loves to be famous, so people jumped at the opportunity to write free content.
Which pretty much brings us current. Thanks to the digital age, consumers have access to a wide range of free content. When they read and share that content, eyeballs follow. And of course advertising revenue follows the eyeballs. Sure it’s flawed, I mean how much value does content written for free by people who just want to be famous really have? So much of this free content is just regurgitated blather that everyone already knows, but that everyone agrees with, so it makes everyone feel smart. It’s a pretty slick concept. Especially for the media outlets.
The same game is played out locally.
There’s an old saying in the news business that “all news is local.” That’s why when there’s an earthquake in Nepal, local reporters interview people in your neighborhood who have relatives in Nepal. Make news local. Local matters.
The Charlotte Observer is still the only “real” newspaper in town. And even though I don’t agree with their position to charge subscriptions for digital content (why get greedy?), they’re still relevant in terms of news in Charlotte. They cover the big, important news well, with strong and fair reporting. Their foray into daily digital with the soft news was a great idea.
But, in my opinion, they’re losing out to the entrepreneur.
When Ted Williams started Charlotte Agenda he asked if I would consider contributing. At the time his vision was to make CA a destination for Charlotte’s growing 20-something demographic. I’d helped start a few other online pubs in the past by contributing original content, and was intrigued with Ted’s idea. But because of the fact that I’m not a reporter, and, unlike most writers I know, I don’t want to be a reporter, I balked. “Write what you want,” Ted said. “I think Charlotte would love to hear your voice.” Ted’s a really good salesman. And here was the kicker, he was willing to pay for the content—unlike every other pub I’d ever developed for. I only submitted one story for CA, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the publication from becoming one of the best business stories of 2015.
While Corey works with a talented partner over at Charlotte Five, and they’ve attracted some writing talent (who they also pay), they still report to the Observer. And somehow, to me, it shows. There are fewer risks taken at Charlotte Five than Charlotte Agenda.
Over the course of the year Ted has surrounded himself with some amazing full-time talent, attracted a new brand of writers who keep the content flowing daily, and has filled all the advertising space on the site for months. They’re currently diversifying their offerings to include things like job boards and exclusive offers to readers. They have very little overhead and all of their IP is digital. And when the staff isn’t bantering with each other (we get it, you’re great friends who love working together and who all have great influence in the Twitter tubes), they do a fine job of community engagement—mostly via Twitter and Instagram (where they have 25K followers.)
Charlotte Agenda has created a movement.
And people eat it up.
Why? Because it’s relevant. It’s local. And it’s not this big bad gloomy news that we all know is out there waiting to club us over the head when we pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV. And yet, when it does tackle big news stories, CA does so with a human approach to storytelling. No, not all of their stories are gold, and not all of their writers are Pulitzer Prize reporters, but that’s part of the appeal. Traditional news is boring, predictable, and reactionary.
I’ve been following both CA and C5 closely this year, and have had features in both (here and here). But what made me realize that Charlotte Agenda was onto something special was one afternoon last summer when both my wife and my 14-year-old daughter cited stories that they read on Agenda that day.
Can both outlets survive? Yes. But surely both won’t thrive. And right now it feels like one is just hanging on while the other is in full throttle ascension.
Charlotte Agenda a gold mine concept for advertising revenue that can be replicated in any city. And the reason it works is because it’s a media outlet for the people by the people. That, and it doesn’t adhere to any rigid agenda passed down from an ivory tower.