By now this much seems obvious: The news media can't depend on a miraculous resurrection of traditional ads or a misguided scheme to charge for what is now free. To flourish, they must capitalize in fresh, exciting ways on their invaluable inventory of talent and knowledge.
Veteran journalist Larry Kramer employs this insight to draw up a convincing, possibly brilliant, rescue plan for journalism and other businesses as well.
His opening argument is that "every business is a media business" because "every aspect of business is increasingly carried out through media." So he lays out a vision for a "new newsroom," meant as a model for besieged media and nonmedia alike and based on "the four factors that together will shape our future."
He labels these factors the four C's (hence his title): consumers, newly empowered; content, now king; curation, helping manage overload; and convergence, revolutionizing everything.
At first, little of that seems original, and Kramer's breezy style and occasional consultantspeak ("the only constant is change," "tomorrow is always uncertain") can be off-putting.
But stick with this book and it succinctly squeezes the essence from familiar concepts and blends a way forward that is resourceful, understandable and solution focused.
In Kramer's new newsroom, companies must creatively provide what people want and need; make the "consumer experience" entertaining and educational; stir up buzz, or "larger conversations"; and connect individually with audiences.
He advises media to stop "asking how to get back to some imaginary good old days in which consumers rationally and respectfully paid for content." Instead, media should "improvise creative new arrangements." Doing so could reverse the old one-way, producer-to-consumer pipeline, take media beyond reliance on display advertising and bring into view the current grail: new revenue sources.
Kramer is a longtime newspaper editor and an entrepreneur � he created MarketWatch. (Personal disclosure: both my wife and AJR's editor have worked directly with him in the past.) He has consulted with numerous companies facing change. So the book contains loads of examples.
For instance, news organizations might study how Atlantic Records moved from mass record sales to "new, smaller revenue streams such as ring tones, satellite radio, iTunes sales, and subscription services." These allow for collecting revenue on the same material multiple times, such as by selling the same music on an MP3 file, a ring tone and online radio � something news organizations might do with their wealth of information.
Another option is "concierge pricing," or "alternative experiences for customers at different price points." For a premium, for example, airlines offer membership clubs and seats with more legroom. Media, Kramer writes, could provide similar upgrades and "exclusive content."
He suggests that a golf magazine could market a "titanium" subscription "not just to a magazine but to a year of immersion in the golf world," with the chance to test new equipment received by the magazine, walk courses with a staff member and attend special events.
Consumers, Kramer says, will pay extra for more choices (he cites smart phones), ease of use (DVDs over tapes), and convenience (iTunes).
They will also respond to new forms of advertising that "compensate..for their attention: with entertainment, with useful information, and with cash." As examples, he cites an ad campaign for beauty products that includes models' demonstrating how to apply them; Hulu's offering viewers a choice of ads before the start of a program; and Citi Cards' contributing to charity for new credit card applicants.
"Rather than insisting on advertising as a forced and unpleasant interruption," he writes, "advertisers need to make consumers want to give their attention to ads."
Kramer crystallizes key lessons of today's marketplace. But he also calls for a kind of forward thinking that mainstream media have sadly lacked. "Success," he writes, "depends on knowing not just what customers want now, but what they might prefer in the future."
For years, legacy media have failed to use their natural advantages in news and communication, standing by as sites such as YouTube, craigslist and eBay lured away consumers by reimagining information services.
This book suggests that, with renewed inventiveness and boldness, mainstream news organizations can still catch up. Given their experience and expertise, they could even prevail.
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com), AJR's senior contributing editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.