Newspapers are in trouble and in the race to find financial footing in digital media, publishers are cooking up all manner of revenue opportunities. A favored tactic is to develop specialty or niche publications, content developed to appeal to advertisers first. Some do it better than others and manage to create interesting, entertaining content, or otherwise add value to the roster of 'custom publishing' projects endemic to the trade. Even then it's hard to differentiate one "Top Lawyers" insert from the next.
But despite good intentions, the content often turns out to be bad. The Denver Post's Progress Colorado 2016 Business and Economic Guide that I plucked out of my Sunday paper is a good example. It's a compilation of positive stats and market data with 'advertorial' thrown in here or there -- featuring a dentist, a healthcare company, a construction firm. It's intended to be a sales pitch for the regional economy.
It ends up being a weird conflation of business and consumer content, unsure of its audience, or not thinking about its audience. In 'Health & Wellness' we're led to believe Colorado's fit population has created a wellness culture that's responsible for growth in healthcare jobs and infrastructure, including several new hospitals around the state. Of course the opposite should be true -- but who's quibbling? We now have a lot of new hospitals to care for all those healthy people.
In "Food, Beverage & Craft Breweries" a headline shouts, "Colorado now in top 10 for both food and beer," and proclaims the state a "top destination for food, beverage, and craft beer enthusiasts." Again I'm confused. What's this a guide to? Are people moving here to eat and drink or start a business? After all beverage and food manufacturing is booming. But throughout the publication, manufacturing is nowhere to be found.
Which of course accounts for my snarky tone and this column.
So if Progress Colorado is a transparently self-serving advertising platform, why complain at all?
For one I'm sore that again an otherwise reputable voice in economic matters dumbs down business content. The Post doubles down on the approach at ProgressCo.org. Content here is also a random mix of paid and original content, written for consumers as well as business executives. I'm left wondering why the paper didn't just invest in business editorial -- news reporting or business features -- in the 'regular' paper.
I know the answer. Content in publications like this doesn't have to meet a quality threshold. And in a weak moment, I empathize with the Post's executives. I've also been down this path. Media in 'transition' really means media in 'survival' mode. Any content that can facilitate ad sales is worthy content. It keep the doors open.
But newspapers and magazines like the Post have the wherewithal to make different choices. Editors can be empowered to invest in smart, edgy business content even in 'supplements.' Aldo Svaldi, Jason Blevins and others there are terrific business writers. The Post could strike a different balance; they choose not to.
Until then Progress will be slow, manufacturing will continue to be an afterthought, and companies willing to support print media will invest in content never meant to inform or entertain readers in a meaningful way. And that's a shame.
Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.