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What can we in the print sphere learn from public radio’s ‘internet’ moment?

Recently it was fascinating — and, I’ll admit, a bit entertaining — to watch public radio news insiders publicly struggling over the same digital media dilemmas those of us in the newspaper industry have faced for so long.

Consider podcasting — enjoying a resurgence of late, and a big part of NPR’s strategy today for capturing a wider audience as content consumption changes rapidly. Yet there appear to be mixed messages about its role in that strategy, and how much it should be promoted in the legacy radio “flagship” (if at all). We’ve heard tell of directives toward mentioning but against “calls to action” for these digital products.

Sound familiar? It should, to those who worked at a newspaper during the chaotic land rush that was the rise of online content. Pretend it’s not there. Don’t help the competition — even if the competition is your own company. What they don’t know can’t hurt us.

‘Not my job’

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard — and continue to hear — that any deployment of resources to secure a foothold in untapped digital audiences is a “threat” to our ownership of a valuable legacy print audience.

Yes, that audience is valuable, particularly in markets where it’s still somewhat strong. But developing a wider digital audience cannot always happen with the restriction that the legacy comes first — and it shouldn’t have to. Nor does it have to mean leaving anyone behind. It just comes down to prioritizing delivery — and one audience’s demands are greater, more voracious, and less patient.

Journalists should have a healthy concern for what’s going on in the company’s business office. But too often, this concern becomes an unhealthy obsession: reporters and editors, feeling they must defend the print product, when really that responsibility is far outside their cherished job descriptions. They should refocus on providing content, and let the audience specialists determine where it goes.

Now the conversation has moved on from “whether” or “when” content that many still see as native to print should hit digital platforms, to whether newspapers need a website at all anymore — but many are still stuck in that first part of the conversation, to be honest.

In the age of distributed content, it’s becoming important to join the diaspora of stories to Facebook’s Instant Articles, the Apple News app for iOS and even Medium. But share this with those still chained to a print workflow and be prepared to explain yourself. A lot.

It’s not like these platforms are scraping content without permission, as Google has so often been (unfairly) accused of doing. It’s opt-in, and there are pretty standard revenue-share agreements (a bit too standard, perhaps) — except for Medium, whose monetization scheme for publishers is barely in Beta and will apparently incorporate Facebook Instant Articles, too.

Is becoming an Instant Articles or Apple News partner a surrender to Facebook or Apple’s disruption of publishing? Maybe, but regardless of where that goes, publishers just aren’t going to win this one: Look, five companies are already raking in 65% of U.S. digital advertising revenue — and not one of them is a “publisher.”

All aboard …

Distributed content need not be an “all or nothing” proposition. Shouldn’t a smart digital strategy include a healthy experimentation with all available pathways to a greater audience? If this feels like deja vu all over again, you’re right; while I’m reminded of the “website or newspaper” debate, it’s also evocative of the more recent “app or website” hand-wringing. I’ve been there for all of it.

Again, the answer is “yes” — both, all of the above. It’s some of the oldest business advice most of us still listen to: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Diversify.

Ultimately, it’s not the reporters or editors or publishers or even engagement editors who will decide how (or if) their product is consumed. The audience has that power — and it always has. It’s up to us to make sure they “Don’t touch that dial,” and prepare to be waiting for them at the next platform when (not if) they finally do.

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