Throwing Stars and Dylan Thomas: Why the media should be relevant and relational

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Every company is scrambling to come up with a strategy to deliver their goods to consumers and to interest their customers through a brand relationship. 

This includes media companies.

Some years ago I made a mistake. I posted a goodbye note to my friends after I was laid off from a small newspaper in Missoula, Montana.

Frustrated as I was at the thought of having to find a media job in a morass of confused and ultimately dying dinosaurs, I lashed out and wrote this: “Unfortunately, newspapers are helmed by old, decrepit captains who cannot see past their bifocals way down their noses reading about yesterday with all the relevance of the Hindenberg blimp disaster.”

I posted this as a Facebook note and tagged a bunch of journalists. Within 8 hours, it was posted on Jim Romenesko’s blog. Within 24 hours, it was everywhere, and I was fielding calls, emails and Facebook friend request from media and non-media alike.

Unfortunately, it cost me a possible job as the digital manager at the St. Louis Post Dispatch, though I’ll never know that for sure. I was simply told to keep looking.

My comment was ageist. I’ll not deny that. But the spirit of it was not.

Two things drive my journalism career. Relevance and relationship.

The limited audience reach at the first newspaper I ever worked for taught me to think about reaching the people I wanted to reach through the mediums they were consuming.

My friends, being young-ish, smart and digitally savvy, were consuming content from a trough so big and wide, you could park yourself in one spot and hardly ever come across the same thing twice. My newspaper, the place where my words were appearing daily, was a salt granule in the trough.

The overwhelming reason for this was our (the newspaper industry and media in general) habit of posting yesterday’s news today.

Just in case you missed it.

Two generations of people living on this planet have access to tools that give them news the second it breaks. One generation is caught in between, but they’re catching up fast. And another generation, the one that formerly consumed news from yesterday today every day at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee in hand, is passing on.

Relevance is key, because the core audience has moved off the traditional delivery platforms and away from the very style of day-old news.

Forward-looking, progressive and analytical and context-driven news created and curated by journalists is what the world is starving for. But we (the media world) keep feeding them stale bread.

The other piece, the big piece, is relationship. One-way, closed-door relationships rarely go anywhere today. The walls of influence and power that once divided media outlets from the public for the ‘good’ of the 4th Estate, now act as historic landmarks, dried-up motes, if you will, separating an increasingly paranoid and frightened media from a public ravenous for forward-looking contextualized information.

Relationship with an audience, with the general public, is second to relevance only in the sense that one must come first. Be it the chicken or the egg, relationship only matters if you have something to contribute.

Digital media start-ups have understood the need for relationship, but many have misunderstood relevance. Some have understood relevance but not relationship.

To their ultimate demise.

There still is the trough, the giant world of options that is the Internet. An it is a problem.

But in a world of bland and purposeless media options, a few granules of relevant and relational salt may just spark interest, as well-flavored food does, and spread word-of-mouth around a community, a town, a city and a country.

Just as relevance comes with a number of intricate issues to work out in terms actualizing. So does relationship.

Those buzzword throwing stars are full of such hypotheses. User-generated content, crowd sourcing, iReporting and a dozen other olive-branch participation strategies.

Meanwhile, media companies keep the walls intact and label everything accordingly, ignoring an information-hungry public getting more and more used to finding contextualized information in their Facebook feeds – from their friends. 

I think Dylan Thomas said it best: “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.”

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