Which Way to the Exit?

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Which Way to the Exit?

I was recently invited to guest blog over at the Chicago Media Future Conference website, where this post originally appeared.

I really like reading newspapers. And you know what… I’m even willing to pay for that pleasure.  This fact may make me unusual these days, but it doesn’t make me a sucker. And lately, it feels that the newspapers think I’m a sucker. They must think I’m a sucker because they treat me as if my loyalty to their product has no breaking point.

I currently subscribe to two papers: the Chicago Tribune daily and the New York Times on Sunday. Why, you may ask, do I continue to purchase news that I can access for free online? To be honest, I don’t have a great answer. Whether its habit, ritual, nostalgia, or tactile pleasure – it’s just always been part of my morning routine. But right now, I don’t think these two papers will have my business much longer. And it’s not that I want to eliminate the physical newspaper from my media intake. Rather, the newspapers are forcing my hand.

The first reason is deteriorating quality. I just don’t get a whole lot out of the daily Tribune. While the 24 hour news cycle leads a lack of “fresh” news in a morning paper, the editorial cutbacks and layoffs are clearly evident in the finished product. It takes me 5-10 minutes and I feel like I have squeezed all the water from the stone.  If it wasn’t for my daughter’s breakfast with the comics, weather, and celebrity gossip in the “Live!” section, I think Trib would have lost us about a year ago.

The second reason is cost. The New York Times has informed me that my Sunday delivery will now cost me $7.50 a week. Even with reduced resources, I still think the Sunday NYTimes is a wonderful thing  (I even find myself steering clear of NYTimes.com on Saturdays to avoid any spoilers from the Sunday paper).  But even as a satisfied customer, I can no longer justify spending that amount of money when you consider that I am essentially paying for the delivery channel, not the content itself. I acknowledge that the economics of physical distribution have changed drastically, but raising prices right now in the face of free content online feels like the music industry deciding to raise CD prices to combat the loss of revenue from digital distribution.

In his famous work, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Albert Hirschman investigates the choices consumers make when faced with deteriorating quality of goods and services. Loyal audiences can either Voice their displeasure to induce change and improvement, or they Exit the relationship altogether and shop elsewhere. Both options have considerable consequences for the producers – a declining customer base and/or organizational changes based on the demands of the remaining customers. It’s a great little book that all media managers should read.

Looking at the current crisis of journalism through the lens of Hirschman, media outlets have yet to make a clear choice as to which of these consumer options – Voice or Exit – is preferable for their survival. To slow the increasingly popular Exit choice, there needs to be a willingness to listen to the Voice of the audience and make changes based on emerging consumer behaviors and expectations. But instead of embracing a updated set of best practices, we just get secret meetings about how to monetize the news.

And to Exit no longer means simply shifting to a different news outlet. We have entered an age of peer recommended news where, more often than not, our network of friends and colleagues organically point us to interesting and relevant stories. As a media company, you should want to make your organization part of those networks.  This means trading in a model of authority (i.e., the “World’s Greatest Newspaper”) for a model of authenticity. It’s about building a trusted relationship with your customers.

I want these companies to understand that I invite their product intomy home and choose to make them part of my media diet. In return, I would like to feel that my loyalty to them has a value, and that they’re willing to listen to my voice. But what are they doing to build their relationship with me? What are they doing to keep me as a satisfied customer?

When it comes to my newspaper home delivery, like so many disgruntled customers before me, I choose to exit.