Fear of cannibalization delayed the digital transformation of many media, who failed to grasp the benefits of the internet
Print was still king when the first news websites emerged a few decades ago. The internet was just an afterthought. The priorities were clear to everyone – first, put together tomorrow’s edition and then let interns publish some of it online.
The print circulation of most newspapers was still higher than the number of website visitors. More importantly, revenue from digital was dwarfed by income from selling physical papers.
Just a few years ago, when I first came to work for a publishing house with a big print circulation of newspapers, the number of print readers was already dwarfed by the number of website visitors.
The weirdest thing is that this logic still lives on (at least weird for me, a millennial with a connected device in his back pocket and an average of 8 hours daily spent in front of that screen).
The argument not to publish online and wait for the print edition to come out so that readers will buy the paper to get the information (and then publish it online for the rest who would not buy it anyway) still persists. It is extraordinary that this is still the case.
The myth of cannibalization
While I was researching this topic in other industries, I was surprised to learn this isn’t unique to news media. All kinds of businesses grapple with the myth of cannibalization. Leaders typically take one of two approaches.
Note: just to make sure we’re on the same page, by cannibalization in this article I mean the Oxford language dictionary meaning: the reduction of the sales of a company’s own products as a consequence of its introduction of another similar product.
The first group fears that another product, maybe a cheaper, less advanced solution will take over their business. They build all kinds of walls, lobby politicians and undermine possible challengers to maintain the status quo.
History has shown that more often than not, this approach has failed and innovation has always found a way.
Before the tech giants entered the mobile phone market, the all-powerful force dictating which apps will be preinstalled belonged to the telecom companies. To enter, you had to cut deals with them which not everyone could afford.
Apple and Google in many respects opened the market and let even small app developers make a living. In other respects, the two tech companies have grown so big that some are calling their market power unfair. And there are investigations going on into their market power.
Or take Intel, the biggest chip maker in the world just a few years ago, which resisted for years to build processors for mobile devices, stuck to PCs and high-end chips for data centers until the company has lost its manufacturing lead mainly because they refused to manufacture chips according to other companies’ designs.
In January 2021, Intel appointed a new CEO, Pat Gelsinger, who almost immediately committed to the new strategy to catch up to competitors. Intel even plans to build new chip-making facilities in Europe.
The other group of leaders takes a chance on a disruptive idea and invests to have an edge in the future in case it becomes a market mover.
In the 1980s, General Electric increased the company’s investment in ultrasound, a lower-cost medical diagnostic technology whose image output was primitive compared with GE’s more technically sophisticated lines of CT-scan and MRI machines.
It was also a lucrative business but GE’s CEO at the time, Jack Welch, wanted to have a footing in that business in case it might become a big opportunity one day. GE Healthcare has been a leading supplier of ultrasound scanners since the 1980s.
A video, an article and a podcast. Which one? All of them
A few weeks ago, I published an article on paid podcasts and audio strategies. In the context of this piece, there are two interesting examples. The Danish magazine Zetland started making each story into an audio as well and quickly the audio versions became much more popular. Something similar happened to the slow-news outlet Tortoise Media which calls itself now audio first.
Both outlets realized they had nothing to lose by doubling down on audio and it turned out their audiences found listening to their stories more compelling.
Two years ago I got into a small dispute with my colleagues. They launched a successful video interview series and we agreed it will also be published in an audio form as a podcast.
The argument revolved around the publishing times. I suggested it should come out on the same day, they argued for windowing, just as Hollywood movies do with theatrical releases and then digital releases. They wanted to publish the audio version days apart. We settled on 48 hours of delay which I wasn’t happy about but wasn’t calling the shots so had to go with it.
What happened? For months there were complaints from our devoted podcast listeners why they had to wait extra two days. At one point my colleagues even very honestly replied that video is a priority and want it to get as many views as possible and fear the audio version will screw it up.
A classical myth of cannibalization in the media was happening right before my eyes and I could not do anything about it. For years, we have done a survey among our podcasts listeners and asked them for feedback. One year, we got a thousand replies and I had to summarize them.
Complaints about the windowing of the above mentioned interview show ranked high. It wasn’t by far the top, but enough people felt to express themselves with dislike about the practice that it got to the top 10 “things people think” summary chart.
It took some time but the audio version started appearing on the same day, the same time as the video interview. And the outcome proved me right, the effect was even stronger than I anticipated. The viewing and listening numbers continued to rise, even accelerated.
Some time later, the team introduced a text version of the interviews (with an intern transcribing the videos and putting them behind a paywall even). Again, nothing happened to the rising trend of consumption.
The lesson is simple. We live in an age where there is an abundance of information, content. The audience can open the internet anytime and get the information. The classical role of gatekeepers no longer applies (and hasn’t for decades now).
Content is not a nice word, it got overused and means something else to different people. But it conveys best the essence of what the video interview, audio version in the form of a podcast and a transcribed version of the same interview have in common. It’s the same content, in different forms.
Maybe in an age with a finite number of things to read, watch and listen to, the windowing argument would apply. Today it is meaningless. The same person might be in the mood to watch the interview one week, too busy next week and only has time to listen to it while jogging or skim through a text version the following week because he is not interested in the guest that much to give it 20 to 30 minutes of watching or listening time.
The diversity of content forms makes it more widely available to audiences with a potential to reach more people. Why would by design obstruct such opportunity?
This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.