Pulitzer, Hearst, Rivalry and Lessons for Content Marketing

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YouTube is a wonderful place. You log on to listen to the ‘Game Of Thrones meets metal’ (which you should totally checkout btw) and minutes later you find yourself watching a documentary on the ‘use of torches in the dark ages’. One such similar cycle made me stumble upon a documentary on the start of journalism in the United States in the mid 19th century and the rivalry between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, for the dominance of that very medium.

A Brief Plot Intro

For the comparatively sane people who don’t know the story, here’s the snapshot: Hearst was the son of a mining millionaire, born with a silver spoon and gold nuggets. Pulitzer was a destitute son of Hungarian immigrants, a newspaper vendor as a kid and an enthusiastic advocate of the masses. Two gentlemen, exactly opposite of each other, eyeing to rule the same realm.

You would remember William Hearst from the movie, Citizen Kane and Joseph Pulitzer from the famous Pulitzer prize. Before they became either, they were at loggerheads to reign the news publishing industry.

Interestingly enough, Pulitzer was the ideal Hearst saw when he first had the calling to enter the business. When he did, Pulitzer was the only competitor he found worthwhile.

Pulitzer published sense and had a loyal readership. People would buy the newspaper and would read it through the day, one article at a time and stretch it till after dinner time, savouring the editorial pieces with dessert or night tea. Hearst was to find a way to break through this. He chose to do the one thing almost all of the internet does today – offer sensationalism at throwaway prices.

New York Journel (historic) 02_17_1898
New York Journel (historic) 02_17_1898

The clipping you see bears a headline composed by Hearst himself. He implied that the Spanish sank the US cargo ship on the Cuban harbour. A claim that couldn’t be substantiated ever, but led to New York Journal’s astronomic jump to become the No.1 newspaper and of course, the war on Cuba.

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The sales were dropping, and Pulitzer could do nothing. So, he did the one thing not expected from him – he joined the race to sensationalism.

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Today’s Publishing – Not much has changed

The online news industry has gone the Hearst way a while ago.
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Mail-Online

Huff Post getting more traffic than NY times, Buzzfeed partnering for political advertisements and Upworthy writing listicles on Brexit. Do you want more indicators?

Which way should Content Marketers go?

Content Marketing feeds on traffic. No matter what industry we are in, the content has the primary aim to attract traffic and pretty much nobody cares, till the counter is ticking. Waking up every day to look at the GA dashboard and feel good about the traffic is a daily ritual in our lives but is that it?

One of the trusted ways to get more traffic is – writing for the search engine. Google is suspected to have more than a 1000 ranking factors when it comes to ranking a page in their results. Keyword optimization is still the most sure-shot way out of those 1000. Every company which sets out to have a readership and a brand for itself, bites the lowest hanging fruit at first.

The ‘writing for search engines’ process goes like this:

  • Search what people are searching for
  • Search what people have already written about it
  • Read 5-10 such pieces and summarize
  • Create a list of related keywords and search phrases
  • Regurgitate all that you read on the topic and stuff it with the list of keywords

You just got a high ranking post ready. Such a sweet recipe for success. But, is it?

This is how the reader works:

  • Search the topic on Google
  • Open first 5 links
  • Nice. Almost nice. Simlar. Same stuff. Same friggin stuff
  • Since all the 5 posts had nothing new to say, he bounces off from all the pages

At a distance, you see all your effort go down the drain.

The problem is the difference between perceived and the actual objective of Content Marketing. The perceived aim as mentioned is getting those ‘pageviews’, the actual objective is to build a loyal audience for the brand which may or may not end up as customers.

There is a way to achieve this as well. To understand how to achieve it, we have to get back to the Hearst vs Pulitzer story.

Nellie Bly – The girl who brought Pulitzer back to life

Last we knew, Hearst made Pulitzer play the game by his rules and then started beating him, black and blue. Since both the newspapers were now about sensational headlines, the differentiating factor was just the price. Hearst sold his paper at ‘Penny a piece’ and Pulitzer sold his for ‘2 Pennies a piece’. Except for some loyalists, the masses chose Hearst every day. Pulitzer was furious and desperate. He did what would definitely make him bleed. He slashed his prices by half.

Hearst had almost an endless supply of inherited fortune and Pulitzer had none. Pulitzer was fighting a war to loose. And then one day, came strolling to Joseph Pulitzer’s office, Nellie Bly. She had stints with smaller newspaper and had a big idea in mind. She wanted to go undercover, like a detective and expose the scam that was going on in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

Thus was born a kind of journalism that nobody had seen before – Investigative Journalism.

Sensational, but not sensationalism
Sensational, but not sensationalism

When the story hit stands, it spread like wildfire and brought a deluge of readers back to Pulitzer’s paper. Nellie didn’t stop at that one story. She went on and on, cracking one story after the other and in turn building an audience, unmatched both in terms of numbers and loyalty.

Takeaway for Content Marketers

Every brand, big or small is fighting for an audience but only a few can claim success.
Here is my list:

And a few publications for news, such as: The Economist, Stratfor, Dawn, Mint On Sunday and more.

Go to any of the blogs or publications and read any story you want to, you’ll end up finishing it and wanting for more. That’s the beauty of crisp writing, maintaining quality and saying something new, always.

Don’t say because you have to. Don’t write because of dropping pageviews. Write because you have something new to say. Something to give your readers for the exchange of every second they spend with you.

If you can’t write for the good of your audience; don’t write.

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