the news value proposition

Once I start thinking about something, it often takes some time for me to move on to other topics. I have a tendency to dive relatively deeply into things that grab my attention. Which means that you get to read more about new business models for journalism. There’s a decent summary in this post, where I link to the list of 23 revenue generation mechanisms for journalism that has been put together on the New Business Models for News site. I’ve also discussed the news value network a fair bit previously, so today I would like to talk about the news value proposition.

In many ways, the issues facing newspapers now reflect the consequences of a profound misreading of the importance of the internet 10 years ago. The great Douglas Adams summed up some of the problems back in 1999:

Because the Internet is so new we still don’t really understand what it is. We mistake it for a type of publishing or broadcasting, because that’s what we’re used to. So people complain that there’s a lot of rubbish online, or that it’s dominated by Americans, or that you can’t necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone. Of course you can’t ‘trust’ what people tell you on the web anymore than you can ‘trust’ what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can’t easily answer back – like newspapers, television or granite. Hence ‘carved in stone.’ What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust – of course you can’t, it’s just people talking – but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV – a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there. It’s just an awful lot of ‘us’.

By treating the internet as a separate channel which is just like a paper but online (described in detail by John Temple), the papers missed a real opportunity to define how news on the internet would work. From a business model standpoint, this mistake is equivalent to thinking that the value proposition of journalism would be exactly the same on the internet as it is in a newspaper. In retrospect, we can see that this is not true, but Temple’s talk provides ample illustrating of how difficult it was to avoid that problem at the time.

So what should the value proposition of internet journalism look like? Dan Gillmore of the Guardian posted some relevant ideas last week. Gillmor lists 22 ways that news can be produced differently. Following these suggestions would create a completely different business model. Some of his key ideas include:

We would embrace the hyperlink in every possible way. Our website would include the most comprehensive possible listing of other media in our community, whether we were a community of geography or interest. We’d link to all relevant blogs, photo-streams, video channels, database services and other material we could find, and use our editorial judgement to highlight the ones we consider best for the members of the community. And we’d liberally link from our journalism to other work and source material relevant to what we’re discussing, recognising that we are not oracles but guides.

Beyond routinely pointing to competitors, we would make a special effort to cover and follow up on their most important work, instead of the common practice today of pretending it didn’t exist. Basic rule: the more we wish we’d done the journalism ourselves, the more prominent the exposure we’d give the other folks’ work. This would have at least two beneficial effects. First, we’d help persuade our community of an issue’s importance. Second, we’d help people understand the value of solid journalism, no matter who did it.

We’d work in every possible way to help our audience know who’s behind the words and actions. People and institutions frequently try to influence the rest of us in ways that hide their participation in the debate, and we’d do our best to reveal who’s spending money and pulling strings. When our competitors declined to reveal such things, or failed to ask obvious questions of their sources, we’d talk about their journalistic failures in our own coverage of the issues.

Those are just three of the 22 new rules. This is how Bruce Sterling describes Gillmor’s suggestions:

This sure doesn’t look much like traditional “news” to me. It looks like something different and quite weird, more like social media as a Fourth Estate.
A society that had “news organizations” that behaved in these ways would be profoundly transformed. I don’t mean it would become utopian or anything… but these ideas look like the behavioral standards of a deadly-earnest “network society,” a civilization we’ve never seen before anywhere.

He’s right – Gillmor’s ideas would transform news. And that’s exactly what needs to happen. This is the kind of thinking that needs to be going on right now. Many of these get at the idea of increasing customer engagement, which is one of the three things that Jeff Jarvis suggests are critical right now. Not all of those ideas will work, but the essence of innovating is to try things out to see what will. The other important point is that none of this involves creating a new product or service. Business model innovation is powerful because it creates new combinations of routines and resources. These are often difficult to replicate. Newspapers still have some unique and powerful resources at their disposal – now they need to figure out how to put them together in a way that will make money. That requires business model innovation.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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