David Mamet is a playwright responsible for some of the best stage plays and movies of the last 40 years; Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, The Verdict, Speed-the-Plow, The Untouchables, Hoffa, Wag the Dog and much more.
Depressingly, while giving a lecture to around 200 of the country’s top journalism course students recently, not a single one had heard of him. It’s a shame. He’s got a lot to teach us about telling a story.
Mamet’s edict about the three essential questions that need to be answered in any scene – Who wants what? Why now? And what happens if they don’t get it? – is a better recipe for reporting than the tired old Who What Why When Where.
I have Mamet on the mind these days. I just paid £70 to a company called MasterClass to indulge in 26 video lessons he made, teaching the art of dramatic writing; part of my endless, so far fruitless, quest to transcend mere hackery.
MasterClass is a San Francisco-based digital education business focused on securing the very best talent in the world to explain the mystery of their success to bozos like you and me.
Speak for yourself, I hear you cry!
But unless you are actually Garry Kasparov, Gordon Ramsay, Kevin Spacey, James Patterson, Martin Scorcese, Herbie Hancock, Shonda Rhimes, Hans Zimmer, Werner Herzog, Aaaron Sorkin, Christina Aguilera, Usher, Serena Williams, Annie Leibovitz, Diane Von Furstenberg, Frank Gehry, Judy Blume, or indeed David Mamet, then Masterclass probably has something to teach you about something you are passionate about.
According to reports, the talent is paid $100,000 (£75,000) up front for their work, plus 30% of subsequent revenues. They use only the very biggest names (Elon Musk is a current target), employ the highest production values and the website features discussion forums, PDF worksheets and homework assignments. It reeks quality.
But the true insight behind MasterClass’s success, I believe, is we are suckers for the things we really care about. And far from diminishing the appeal, paying for the privilege actually enhances it. It sets us apart. It makes us part of a club; the committed, the emotionally engaged.
When we launched The New European newspaper at Archant, this sense of emotional engagement was at the heart (literally) of the proposition. Our relatively high price point – £2 – was based on the premise that people would feel they were subscribing to a community, not just a newspaper. We were right; price has never been a factor in The New European’s success. When we dropped it to £1 for a week, sales didn’t budge. Looking back now, I wish we’d charged a fiver.
Moving people towards a propensity to pay for our digital products is the challenge of news organisations everywhere for the next five years.
The mass-scale / display advertising model is clearly flawed. Whoever you talk to on the subject these days, there seems to be a consensus forming that some form of direct payment or subscription model is essential.
This is very bad news for those with no unique content to peddle, or those that have substituted unique values or content for clickbait garbage in the great Klondike-esque rush for unique users. Most of them will surely end up slowly freezing to death.
But it’s good news, one hopes, for those with unique content and a willingness to pay close attention to what actually drives the community they’re talking to.
Local media, with its geographical vertical, has a great opportunity so long as it can stop seeing itself as just the provider of news and sport but something more – the very fabric of the community its readers value so highly.
Marty Barron, editor of the Washington Post and previously of the Boston Globe (he was the grumpy one in Spotlight) told me that subscriptions to the Boston Globe had soared since the movie was released. Why, he wondered. The paper was the same old paper it had been ever since. His answer was that Spotlight had made people realise the BG did something important for its community. I say The New European readers feel the same way.
Maybe this is how news brands should market themselves in the future; as the glue of a community, not just the provider of a service, however important and trusted.
Our industry is obsessed with metrics. But when you cannot count what is important, you make important the things you can count*, and there is a world of difference between engagement metrics and emotional engagement.
Pushing at the open doors of people’s passions, as MasterClass does so brilliantly, seems a logical way forward. This means listening less to the news editor’s old saws about what qualifies as “news”, and paying much more attention to what the community is doing all that time they’re not reading our websites and papers.
* This phrase, first used about analysing the Vietnam War when American strategists focused on body count as the defining factor of success, should be salutary.