Those of us living through the Internet-caused revolution in journalism can’t see what’s going to come out the other side: how readers will interact with journalism, what the sources of journalism will be, how journalists will make money. All we do know is that mass-market journalism is hurting, badly, and may not survive. And that we have no idea how to thrive in this new world of digital media.
Bruce Schneier adapted this article from the talk he gave at the November 7 Twin Cities Media Alliance forum.
I have five pieces of advice to those trying to survive and wanting to thrive: based both on experiences as a successful Internet pundit and blogger, and my observations of others, successful and unsuccessful. I’ll talk about writing, but everything I say applies to audio and video as well.
One, be interesting. Yes, that’s obvious. But the scale is different now. It used to be you could be interesting in aggregate; a few interesting articles or features could carry an entire publication. Now every single piece of writing has to be interesting; otherwise, it won’t get read, passed around, or linked to. Have something to say. Pick a niche you can become known for.
Two, be entertaining. Interesting isn’t enough; you have to entertain people as well. Internet readers live in a world where millions of things are constantly vying for their attention. Only the best individual pieces of content thrive in this environment. Often, “best” means “most entertaining.” Opinions are dime a dozen on the Internet; you need to make sure yours are worth your readers’ time.
Three, be engaging. Readers want to be engaged. They want to be part of a community. They want to engage, with each other as well as with you, on their own terms. Engagement might involve comment or discussion areas, or ways people can follow your work. Anything that limits engagement inhibits community. What this means depends on context; sometimes you have to allow community to develop naturally, even if it’s in ways you don’t like. Sometimes you need to censor off-topic comments to prevent hateful or annoying commenters from driving others away. In general, though, you should allow anonymous comments. You should make your interface as easy as possible to use. You should reply to your readers. And you shouldn’t treat your readers solely as marketing opportunities. The more your writing fosters engagement, the more popular it will be.
Four, be available. Readers need to be able to interact with your writing on their own terms. This means you can’t make it difficult for them to find and link to your content. Make sure your content is accessible by any and every Internet device out there. Never take your old writing off the Internet. Never change your URLs. Never make it hard for them to find or link to a URL . Never put your writing behind a paywall. You’re part of an ecosystem now; fail to play by the rules and you quickly become isolated.
Five, be agile. The Internet changes all the time; what’s true today might not be true in two years. Don’t lock yourself in to a particular look, or a particular web technology. Simple interfaces are better than flashy complicated ones; I don’t care what your ad agency tells you. Agility applies to making money, too. We have no idea what financial models will thrive in the future, but it seems likely that it will be a portfolio of different things. You’ll be more likely to write for different publications. You’ll be more likely to figure out cross subsidies, so that some things pay for the others. I have a free blog and a free monthly newsletter, and charge for books, speaking engagements, and consulting. Your mix will be different. If you’re lucky, everything you do will augment everything else.
Revolutions are scary times. The old crumbles around us, and we have no idea what — if anything — will be built on its ruins. Remember, though, that human nature doesn’t change. People will always gravitate to the interesting, entertaining, engaging, and available, and the agile will be the first on the scene.