Lesson for Writers: Forget Writing, Focus on Perception of Value
Newsweek is shutting down its print edition at the end of this year and moving to a completely digital format in the early part of 2013, editor Tina Brown announced today. Newsweek had earlier — in 2010 — merged with The Daily Beast, losing even its domain name in the process. Newsweek’s new digital format will be called Newsweek Global.
It’s a wonder the printed edition lasted as long as it did, considering losses have been about $40 million a year and subscriptions dropped from about 3.2 million 11 years ago to about $1.5 million this year.
These days, a weekly publication print schedule just can’t compete with the always on and constant Internet. Readers are increasingly less and less concerned with where they get their breaking news (and it’s hard to cover breaking news in a weekly format) and more concerned with the ease with which they can get it. In that scenario, the Internet wins out. Readers can get alerts to their smartphones (that’s how I learn of many of the news events of the day), turn on their tablets, or skip over to some news site while at work.
The Internet has also brought other changes to the publishing industry that have been reported in depth: Advertisers are ditching those printed editions for the digital sites, leaving print publications scrambling (ever so slowly because, well, publishing isn’t the fastest-moving industry), to figure out how to survive. As a former city editor at a daily newspaper, I recall those news meetings of the early days of convergence. We’d have long discussions about what the top news story of the day would be for the printed edition, what would go above the fold to be seen from the rack, and all manner of other details about our beloved ink-stained paper. The discussion about online would be a much shorter talk.
Flash forward to today and news organizations are, in many instances, still struggling with how to make the two work together. Many are realizing, like Newsweek, that print just isn’t profitable, no matter how they slice it.
But even in this news, there are lessons and opportunities that come from this experience.
Writing isn’t just about writing
What you produce as a writer is much more important than simply the writing. You are creating a brand. Newsweek created a brand, and that brand still has some value in the marketplace, because of conferences and other events/products under that brand.
So what you can take from this, whether you run a full-time writing business or you are a part-time freelancer who squeezes in writing assignments when you have time off from your day job, is to think about the actual value you bring.
Use this in how you position yourself. For instance, if you are a freelance writer who writes and sends out press releases, is it better to position yourself as a freelance writer who writes and sends out press releases, or as a publicist? If you are a writer who produces marketing copy, is it better to position yourself simply as a freelance writer or as a marketing strategist, expert, or consultant? If you write business stories, health stories, and occasionally some other things, is it better to position yourself as a specialist — a business writer or a health writer — than just as a generalist?
Specialization creates a greater perception of value. And often, positioning yourself as something other than simply as a generalist freelance writer, can earn you better pay.
I know it’s hard for us writers to see beyond the art of what we create and the craft of how we create, but in today’s marketplace, we have to focus more on the business of what we do. And the business of what we do may demand that we focus less on identifying us by what we technically do — write — but by what value we provide. The value your writing, research, and investigative skills provide to your client may be far superior to the perception that you are “only” a writer.
So forget about focusing just on the fact that you write. Lots of people write, and as a result, many have reduced what they do into a commodity that is rewarded with very low pay. Instead, focus on the value you bring with your writing and all the other skills that make you stand out if you want to make a living writing.
Newsweek’s value is in the brand it has created. So while the print edition is going away, the brand itself is being carried on to continue to provide value to readers, just in a different format.
You need multiple streams of income
If you are going to run a writing or publishing business, it’s imperative that you have multiple streams of income. This helps in many ways. For one, it can relieve panic if one stream suddenly dries up or is taking too long to produce income. For instance, if you freelance for a publication and that publication doesn’t pay you when you expect, you could be pretty stressed out if that’s your only source of income. But if you have other means of income, you might be inconvenienced and even annoyed, but you won’t be panicked.
Another reason why multiple streams of income are important is that this diversification relieves the pressure on you to make one stream work and it opens you up to the possibility that something else you do may be pretty profitable. For instance, if you are a freelance business writer, in addition to the freelance articles you write, you may also decide to develop the speaking side of your business because as you interview these successful businesses and learn the ins and and outs of business processes, you may find that your way of explaining and your take on current events in business lend themselves to sharing that insight. And you may find that people want to pay you for that. Suddenly, that stream of income might even surpass your writing income!
If you are a writer, you most likely can develop at least one other stream of income right now, just by studying your business. For instance, my main source of income comes from ghostwriting books for business leaders, politicians, and others. But I can also speak, author my own books, and create additional products. All of these lead to additional income.
What about you? What other income streams can you incorporate into your writing life?
Writing is business
Today’s writers must adapt to what’s going on in the marketplace. It’s not enough to rest on the notion that “we’ve always done it this way,” or on the idea that this is how we’ve done it in the past. It’s about what you can do to make yourself more viable — and profitable — tomorrow.
You aren’t just a writer. Writing is what you do. What you are is tied to the value you bring to your client. You can define that value and shape that perception.
Newsweek’s print edition might be going away because the economics of print just can’t support a desire to keep doing things as they have been over the 79 years of its history. But I believe this digital move can present new opportunities and maybe even a new life for the struggling publication.
What new move can you make to breathe new life into your writing career?