Newspapers: even if you don’t have the solution, stick with the main issue

Teachers (and I’m one) have a habit, which understandably annoys many people who wrestle with practical problems, of posing questions to which they don’t have an answer. When I’m in this mood with an audience or class, I tend to put a questions about bundles.

Newspapers, many news websites, magazines, radio and television programmes are bundles of stuff. While this may be justified as making content more attractive and useful (variety, serendipitous discovery of the unexpected), bundles are really made by economic imperatives. A mixture of news and features collects together enough attractions to persuade someone to buy a newspaper; the newspaper sells the attention thus secured to advertisers who buy space alongside the content. In theory, the bundle’s total income exceeds its outgoings in a web of cross-subsidy. Magazines and commercial broadcast channels operate variants on this model.

But what happens, my irritating question goes, if an irresistible force blows the bundle apart? What happens if the readers or audience sees no logic in consuming journalism packaged in bundles? Social media, search engines and the internet don’t naturally see things in bundles. Bundles are by definition ambiguous compromises. Web search abhors ambiguity.

For a year or two, this uncomfortable thought has been pushed aside by more immediate, and slightly more palatable, issues. Can newspaper paywalls be made to work? (Has the New York Times discovered the secret sauce/holy grail/formula for eternal life?) Is the iPad the answer to struggling publishers’ prayers? But underlying fundamentals have a way of coming back to the surface.

As I say, I don’t have the answer. But of this I am sure: news publishers who don’t stare hard at this most important dilemma and experiment with answers are the ones most likely to fail. In this spirit, have a look at three posts which deal with this in unusually fresh terms.

  1. For a few years past, Google has been treating the news business with conspicuous gentleness. Top Googlies have toured future-of-journalism events to reassure everyone present that they take the importance of journalism seriously. In the past three weeks, Google’s head of news Richard Gingras, has hardened that stance by unleashing a volley of sceptical warnings – not about journalism as such, but about newspapers. Not least, Gingras took aim at publishers who were distracting themselves from the real issues of survival by imagining that the iPad is just another form of magazine publishing. Good summary here.
  2. A week or two ago, I was having an exchange with Steve Buttry about what, in a an age when the tools of journalism are available to most, journalists are actually for. Here’s an entirely different take from a digital native, Stijn Debrouwere, who works in newspapers and who’s been wondering the same thing. He thinks the large area activity covered by the term “journalism” is being nibbled away by an increasingly large and hungry crowd of competitors.
  3. The admirable Matthew Ingram of Gigaom (see 1 above) both discusses this and gives plenty of useful links. Journalism may be dying “by a thousand cuts” but points out that “readers aren’t interested in debates about the nature of journalism.”

One last thought. I wrote just now that bundles of news were put together by economics. But bundles are also held together by trust: readers repose trust in the organisation which produces the bundle and trusts the varied output from it. The logic of search engines is to “disambiguate” (and to invent ugly new words). But trust isn’t easily disambiguated. If material is split into fragments, what happens to the trust?

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  1. I think the trust question is really interesting – especially when you think about it in the context of broadcasting and public service requirements.

    The post also reminded of something Adam Tinworth wrote back in 2009, on the death of the news package –

    • And therein lies the problem: either build a wall, semi-permeable or not underpinned by an established, trusted brand, or just let the unstoppable news product unbundling happen whilst keeping enough of a rein on each shard of content to attach some level control enough to leverage some revenue and a return on the investment.

  2. If material is split into fragments, what happens to the trust?

    Three answers:

    1. Trustworthiness must be demonstrated anew in each article (e.g. by “showing your work,” linking, etc.) — a good thing

    2. Trust becomes a property of an individual writer rather than their employer (I trust Dana Priest; I don’t trust the Washington Post). — maybe a good thing

    3. Trustworthiness may be communicated via shorthand with a logo or graphic — not such a good thing

  3. I’m glad to see more people discussing the impact of breaking up the bundles. I talked about it at SIIA in 2007.

  4. Thank you, George. To add one cause of likely disruption in the near future:

    Comparing each other’s share of mobile users has become the latest game or competition at journalism conferences in Europe and the US, as if mobile traffic was a virtue in itself. Aftonbladet expects to have more mobile than desktop users by 2014.
    At the same time, though, there is no plausible scenario yet for achieving the same ad revenue per mobile user as per desktop user or tablet user. In Germany, the volume of the mobile ad market is still comparatively tiny.
    Looking at the stellar growth of smartphone penetration in Germany, this spells serious trouble.