Death-of-newspapers-gravestone-3THE decline of newspapers sounds a clear warning to the digital industry – favour style over substance and you will pay a heavy toll.

In newspapers’ case, the price has been a terrifying descent, which is gathering pace.

For the web industry, the result will not be a fall but rather a stagnation, destined never to reach its true potential through routinely delivering ingrained mediocrity to customers.

At least, that’s the best outcome for those profiting from the status quo.

But there is another outcome – a survival-of-the-fittest revolution, and then regeneration.

When clear-sighted agencies embrace a “content-first” approach, irrelevancy will result for stubborn old-schoolers who cling to the notion that it’s colour swirls, fonts and jQuery scripts that attract, compel and propel visitors.

That, by far, is the best outcome for customers.

Bigger, but somehow so much smaller

I started my 20-year newspaper career as a cub reporter on The Daily Mercury in Mackay, Australia.

The Queensland coastal town had a population of about 70,000 then, and the Mercury’s circulation was more than 17,000 a day.

Now, the population’s ballooned to well over 100,000 thanks to a coal mining boom, but the Mercury’s circulation has plummeted to fewer than 11,000 Monday-Friday,

Paper sales have tanked from 17,000 to 11,000 even though tens of thousands more people live in the distribution area.

Why? Because the owners, APN, degraded content to cut costs and maximise profits.

They tried to compensate with slicker design, in the hope that readers wouldn’t notice.

They did notice. In droves.

Nice fonts, shame about the circulation

At all their papers, APN splashed about more colour, refined the modular layout, and A/B tested whether 8.7 point text on 9.3 point leading was easier to read than 8.8 on 9.2.

Nobody cared. They just wanted good content.

APN’s shares have plummeted from more than $5.50 each in 2007 to about $0.60 today. Ask APN’s shareholders what they think about the “profit-maximising” strategy of giving readers less and less quality content, but more and more attractive fonts.

I’m not picking on APN or the Mercury, which my grandfather, Harry Moore, edited in two stints over 20 years, ending in 1949. This scourge of style over substance was, and is, industry-wide.

Newspapers have never looked better while readership figures have never looked uglier.


I’ve lost count of the number of newspaper redesigns I’ve worked through, and their hyped-up launches, which were supposed to reverse falling circulations.

Not. A. Single. One. Worked.

Why would they? Why would anybody buy a newspaper because it had changed the headline font, or added some coloured lines between increasingly dull and irrelevant stories.

Mediocrity killed the digital agency

And right there blares the alarm for the web industry, which overwhelmingly is driven by people from a design or technological background, and which routinely treats content as an afterthought.

The warning for them is shrill: Make content the priority, or you’re stuck in mediocrity, and headed for redundancy.

The digital industry makes products to be consumed by an audience. That puts it in the media and entertainment biz, which, like it or not, stands or falls on its content. That is immutable.

I don’t know much about content …

Newspapers ran into trouble when journalists, the content providers, lost control. Accountants and advertising execs, who knew nothing of the value of content, were handed the reins and galloped straight towards calamity.

Relearn the lesson and heed the warning: The dominant influence in a media and entertainment business must be the content providers. That has never been the case with the web, but it’s time for it to grow up as it emerges from its pioneering phase, where its shortcomings, thus far, have been forgiven given its immaturity.

Coming soon, terrible movies made by set designers

OK, let’s switch industries, and consider another media, Hollywood. Can you imagine if it were run by set designers, and all they cared about was how the sets looked? The world would be subjected to a pile of stunningly set cinema stinkers, and people would stop going to the movies.

It seems ludicrous to make that analogy, but isn’t that the current set-up of the web industry, which I argue is equally inappropriate and untenable?

You charge $3000. They charge $300. Why?

In my view, a content-first mentality has become a matter of survival. These days the radio is blaring with ads for $300 websites (I checked them out – they *look* pretty slick) and et al are equally cheap.

Face it, HTML, PHP and JavaScript are true international languages. They function the same whether they are written in Sydney, New York, Manilla, or Bangalore.

But a freelance copywriter in Caracas charging $8 an hour cannot write effectively for a Sydney audience. They do more harm than good.

Compelling, professional content that achieves its goals can be the point of difference, which attracts a premium price.

The proof is in the do-overs

Not convinced? If you’re a digital agency and you think the status quo is working fine ask yourself these questions: “How much of our new business is people wanting their existing site redone?” and “How many of our sites have been redone by somebody else?”

Do the answers make you squirm?

But I’m an electrician – how do I write a website?

It is no longer OK to throw the responsibility for content back to the client. They are stunningly ill-equipped to produce it themselves to the required standard, or to find somebody competent who can.

And the in-house SEO team is also a poor option. Just because you can operate keyword research software does not qualify you to write content that meets the needs of visitors, pleases an increasingly demanding Google, or that will be shared on social networks.

Hi, I’m a digital agency and I’m all about the content

What I’m suggesting is that digital agencies need to recruit and align themselves with content specialists to deliver a genuine results-based solution for clients.

The first words to a new client should be: “Let’s get your content sorted”, and then all design and function considerations should support this.

Just what sort of show are you running?

At the very least, much more needs to be done to eradicate the disgraceful amount of spelling, grammatical, punctuation, and typing errors that litter poor businesses’ web presences.

No self-respecting print design agency would publish as many errors in a lifetime as occur in just one shoddily written and edited website.

So why put content first? Because professional poo polisher is not a sustainable business model.

Published by Nick Moore

Nick Moore is a communications specialist in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Nick is also the founder of 'Great Wait', a printed news sheet for waiting rooms.

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  1. As usual a well written, eminently readable article Nick.

    I did enlarge it to read it though, and felt that I had to scroll rather a lot due to the paragraph breaks. This might have made reading a longer article a bit tiring – so maybe font size and spacing aren’t totally irrelevant, but I loved the plain black on white, nice and easy on the eyes.

    Enjoyed the comparison to films run by set designers. Could I also suggest hospitals run by accountants? Or indeed engineering projects?

    All the best

    1. Thanks Rachel. If I ran on the sentences a bit more, and bumped up the point size, but replaced the content with “lorem ipsum’ text, would it be a more satisfying read for you? I never argued that readability considerations were “irrelevant”. They are very important. As is design. As is functionality. My point is that focussing on these areas will not compensate for poor content, which, after all, is what attracts, engages, persuades, informs and entertains a digital products consumers.

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