Update, Nov. 3, 2016
Poor tronc. On Oct. 31, the purchase of the rebranded company (more on that below), formerly Tribune Publishing, owner of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times among other periodicals, by publisher Gannet Company fell through. The details of the deal are complex, but the short of it is that Gannet had been attempting to buy the company for several months, making two earlier bids that were rejected. The two parties had agreed on a higher price but weren’t able to seal the deal. Some outlets said part of the issue came down to declining print ad revenue industry wide, which affected Gannet’s ability to finance the deal.
The tronc concept focuses on digital content creation, the streamlining of process, and a weird AI-slant that devalues the very things which set print publications apart: storytelling, journalism, and capturing a reader’s attention. Research has shown that people still value these things and will reward them with their time and dollars.
I didn’t think the tronc rebranding would work back when it was announced in June, and I still think the venture will not be successful. No one is claiming that it is an issue with the rebranding that caused Gannet’s failed bid. However, smart people have been trying to reinvent print publishing’s revenue streams for more than two decades. Because of that, we know putting out crap content doesn’t work. Plenty of big publishing houses (our parent company included) have managed to withstand the decline in print advertising and even grow. And plenty of them did that by putting out stories and content that is so valuable — people want to read them.
We originally published the following blog on June 27, 2016.
I imagine the folks working the newsrooms of the newly rebranded tronc feel like they’re trapped in a surrealist comedy. The troubles of the company formerly known as Tribune Publishing, owner of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times among other periodicals, have been well documented, and the press release and video promoting the company’s new direction have been widely mocked.
Did Tronc Forget About “Journalism”?
But that’s not the worst of it. The rebranding could not have been more tone-deaf. It threw what those staff members do — and do well — out the window. There was no mention of quality journalism, storytelling, or writing — the exact things that built these brands in the first place. In the video and press release, they’ve been replaced by an artificial-intelligence-driven, optimized world full of video content.
I get that the parent company is attempting to solve a difficult problem — reinventing a business model for a troubled industry. I cannot imagine how impossible and challenging that must seem. That said, let me tell you about all of the ways this isn’t going to work.
1. We’ve Been Through This Before
It’s the kind of trendy, buzzword-laden push around digital content that sort of … kind of … made sense a few years ago when it seemed so revolutionary and new. But I guess the owners of tronc slept through 2010 to 2013 in digital history.
Just as a refresher, in 2010, many lamented (or cheered, depending on the perspective) the rise of the content farm — companies that generated SEO-keyword heavy, low-quality, cheap content for websites looking to get traffic and get it fast. By 2013, mostly thanks to the Google Panda algorithm updates that penalized sites for using cheap SEO tactics and cheap content — content farms began folding.
2. Quality Matters a Lot More Than Your AI
Lost in that narrative is the fact that if the sites fueled by farms had built loyal followings by publishing stories people actually wanted to read and returned to read more, the sites and content farms would have survived the shift in search algorithms on the strength of their audiences.
The truth is that people care about the quality of the content they’re reading. How many times did you have to click on a “10 celebrities that look like their dogs” story before you stopped clicking?
3. The People, They Also Like to Read Things
More recently, we’ve seen a rise in popularity of quality long-form content on the web. For years, conventional wisdom dictated that shorter content performed better online — that hasn’t changed. But lately, numbers seem to indicate that people like to read not just shorter articles, less than 500 words, but also longer articles, over 800 words. These longer stories rank better in search, attract more readers, perform better on social media, and get more backlinks than many of the shorter ones.
We’ve seen this research mirrored in experiences with our clients. For one, a 1,600-word story is clocking in as one of their best-performing posts this year, right next to a 450-word post. It even boasts an impressive average time onsite of 5 minutes, 46 seconds. People are sharing and reading this research-heavy, in-depth story.
4. Your Robot Can’t Write Think Pieces
Here’s the kicker: Not just any 1,600-word story will perform well. It has to be clearly written and provide something of value to the reader. Not everyone can do this.
Few can pull off the kind of compelling, clear, and concise writing needed to keep people engaged for more than 1,500 words. That feat takes some experience that can’t be artificially programmed. Ask any professional writer: Only through years of hard-won experience — sometimes in grueling conditions and rarely for good pay (I walked three miles, uphill, in the snow) — do you get there.
Do They Really Think They’re On to Something New?
What kills me about the tronc incident is that this ill-advised rebranding is being driven by the need for new revenue streams. Yet most media companies have been working through the challenge of finding cash outside of print ads for more than a decade. Some have even turned a corner in adapting their business models, though newspapers still seem to be struggling.
In the announcement, tronc treats optimizing content, adapting creative work to the digital world, and incorporating video as novel concepts, but they aren’t. They’re things tronc should have been doing for the last 10 years. In fact, I suspect several of the mastheads the company owns are already utilizing these best practices. After all, other media companies seem to use them as part and parcel of doing business. They’re not new approaches; they’re part of the routine.
Lord knows, they are for us. As much importance as we place on hiring experienced, talented journalists and editors, we also care about tying content across media — especially video — and optimizing future content based on performance.
Meanwhile — and successful media companies inherently know this — a good distribution model and optimization will do nothing if not supported by quality stories and content. And this is something the jargon-heavy, breathless, promotional rebranding of tronc seems to have completely missed.