What does your news organisation do that no one else does?

I originally thought of this question as: What does your news organisation do better than everyone else? But then, most news organisations would interpret that question as about quality and quickly answer that their writers are better or they have higher production standards. That’s not what I meant, so I changed the question. What is it that you do that is unique or what could you do that none of your competitors are doing?

People are drowning in information, drowning in media choices. Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures called it ‘the looming attention crisis’. Umair Haque puts it this way:

Across consumer markets, attention is becoming the scarcest – and so most strategically vital – resource in the value chain. Attention scarcity is fundamentally reshaping the economics of most industries it touches; beginning with the media industry.

Umair says that the media companies that succeed will be the ones that allocate attention most efficiently, not necessarily the ones that produce most efficiently.

I’m thinking about the economics of the business after reading an article in the Press Gazette comparing the economics of the newspaper business and comparing it to the online business. The web revenue threat is no myth, or to put the terms in dollars and cents:

In the US, digital media consultant Vin Crosbie has calculated that
each printed newspaper reader is worth between $500 and $1,200 a year
in terms of reader revenues and advertising cash.

By contrast, Crosbie suggests that the average online newspaper reader is worth perhaps $8 a year.

That is why newspapers are trying to grow their online revenue as quickly as possible. This isn’t simply about declining readership. Dan Gillmor put it very succinctly at the NMK Forum:

Advertising is being systematically separated from journalism because
there are companies that do advertising better than journalism

Peter Kirwan wrote in that article in the Press Gazette, “According to McKinsey, for example, US newspapers lost $1.9bn in classified ad revenues to the web between 1996 and 2004.” He also quotes Jeff Jarvis:

I think that you have to boil down to your assets. Put your resources behind what makes you special and more valuable.

I couldn’t agree with Jeff more, although Peter assumes that he is politely advocating mass redundancies. I don’t actually think that Jeff is simply advocating huge job cuts. (Disclosure: I used to work at Advance Internet when Jeff was president and creative director.) I think Jeff is right that the days of ‘big revenues and big costs’ are ending.

I think back to the US. Thousands of journalists attend the nominating conventions for the political parties, actually more journalists than delegates. At some point, newspapers and television stations will have to ask themselves what value is added to have their reporter or camera crew there. In the UK, the redundant coverage is justified because newspapers have more of an individual voice or point of view. But with morning and evening freesheets in London, is an individual voice and a point of view enough of a unique selling point? As budgets are squeezed, there will have to be rethink of what is essential for bespoke coverage and what is better done through aggregation and contextualising.

This is all about attention and one thing that gets my attention is relevance. I think this subtle statement from Steve Yelvington says it all:

Readership declines are very real, and they’re way ahead of circulation declines.

Personally, I’m so time-starved that I need boring information and
really don’t read newspapers for their scintillating writing. I just
need to digest a lot of facts quickly. I can skim RSS feeds and come
away quite quickly with the papers’ positions if I really want to. But
normally on my way to work, I just listen to the NPR hourly summary and
New York Times Front page podcasts (about 8 minutes for the both of
them) while skimming headlines on Avant Go from the Washington Post,
the BBC, the International Herald Tribune, the Guardian and CNet.Brand loyalty? You gotta be kidding. I search and sift and don’t look to one ‘brand’ for my news.

I go back and forth about having Sky News or News 24 on in the
mornings. The channels are OK for background noise to catch the odd thing I’m interested in, but if I could find a good
morning on demand audio or video news service, I’d switch the TV off in
a minute. It takes too long for me to find out anything that I’m
actually interested in.

However, I’m not going to extrapolate my information consumption to everyone because I’m a journalist, and part of my job is sifting through a lot of information. However, I’m not alone in being very busy and not having as much time as I once did for news and current affairs.

I think we as journalists have to be honest with ourselves. We need to stop demanding that we’re relevant and prove our relevance to our readers and viewers. We need to do more explaining to help give readers a sense of why world events are relevant to them and not just assume that they see the connections. It’s a bit cliche, but context is becoming king. Dan Gillmor also said at the NMK Forum that he thinks the media can play a role in helping people navigate all of this, in helping them become more media literate in this hyper-saturated media landscape.

Personally, I also see an opportunity in Dan’s news as conversation model.

  1. By allowing the people formerly known as the audience to ask questions of us and our sources, we become an indispensable source of news and information.
  2. We don’t have to assume that we’re staying relevant to our readers and viewers, if we share control with them, we know we are remaining relevant.
  3. We can tap the wisdom in the crowds to make our journalism better.

This is one possible future for journalism. It is the journalism of social media, and it is part of the future that I’m embracing.

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