No longer a good, not yet a service

“Getting what you deserve” by Nick Smith in today’s Independent (which isn’t, it’s Fairfax-owned) is a good read about the future of the media. In beautiful irony, it doesn’t seem to be online, so I’ll excerpt it here:

“Journalists deserve low pay” Robert Picard, media economics professor at Jonkoping University, Sweden, opined provocatively. “Wages are compensation for value creation and journalists simply aren’t creating much value these days.”

The alarming disappearance of papers and journalists (27,000 have lost their jobs in the US alone in the last 18 months) is, Picard argues, a result of loss of control of content.

Picard believes skilled journalists are not like skilled plumbers. Their skill is the distribution of other peoples’ knowledge. Now, that knowledge is distributed online at little cost, and control of the saleable commodity has disappeared. “The primary value created today comes from the basic underlying value of the labour of journalists. Unfortunately that value is now near zero.”

Rupert Murdoch, so often cast as the scourge of journalism, is shaping up as a white knight. His News Corp is to start charging for website content. … His determination to wrest control of content and ensure payment is significant. The Financial Times followed last week with its own iTunes-inspired business model Fairfax Media, Australia-based publisher of The Independent, is also said to be considering joining the pay-per-read campaign. If both follow through, every daily Australian newspaper, save the West Australian, will charge for at least some online reading. Fairfax chief executive Brian McCarthy’s comments that digital delivery must be monetised will cheer Barry Colman, publisher of the National Business Review, the only New Zealand website to charge a fee. Colman says a pay-per-view model is the only way to stop further newspaper losses and the erosion of quality.

[Edit: It’s online now. Thanks I/S.]

The problem with Murdoch, Colman and indeed the good professor whose quote leads the piece, is that they see news as a good; a thing which people should pay for. But really, it’s not a good – it’s a service.

Or more precisely, news text and information is a good, but it can’t readily be monetised – what can, and must, be monetised is the service of distributing and providing access to that good, and most critically, the service of filtering out all the stuff which is irrelevant. This is the service journalists provide – their real value isn’t, as Picard says, generating content in the paragraph factory, it’s in their role as decision-makers defining what is news and what isn’t, what people need to know about and what they don’t.

Murdoch and his cohort see the internet, which robs their ‘good’ of value, as a problem to be solved or circumvented. But the internet is the only thing which will allow for the establishment of a genuine service which will enable media companies to provide tailored, targeted content to individual readers.

Content can be free – but as the volume of content grows, the value of relevance increases. That’s where the money is.


4 thoughts on “No longer a good, not yet a service

  1. The mainstream media can/do use the net to “connect” stories (the history of the issue and refer to specialist articles/research). Thus aid the reader seeking to look deeper into the story.

    Journalists (aided by their peers and the newspaper resources) will in any area build up a knowledge base in their doing this and doing it better than most individuals using the net for themselves.

    Thus they provide a value.

    Sometimes journalists do this when they use this knowledge to comment (add value to the reporting) on breaking stories by puting them into some perspective.

    Otherwise it’s simply a filter and thus a censorship of the excluded – which is where the alternative media outside of the “mainstream media conspiracy” operates.

  2. Targeted content is relevant content and therefore, as you point out, it is more valuable content to the individual user and to the publisher in aggregate. The journalist’s role to decide what is news but only the reader can decide what is off value to them so publishers need to connect with their readers and serve them more relevant content.

    I know a bit about this because I work with a content targeting service and the difference we see in user engagement when we target content to the individual user is incredible. In the end, “All news is local” and on the web it can be localized to the individual user and therefore be more relevant and valuable.

  3. SPC,

    Caution. Rant follows!

    The mainstream media’s web presence is to mature internet networking models as a stone axe is to a kalashnikov – it can achieve the same effect with a great deal less efficiency and convenience under a very limited set of use-cases.

    News media outlets, being as they are so wholly focussed on the content-as-commodity model, are failing at the internets in two major ways:

    1. Trying to impose artificial scarcity on a commodity which is not naturally scarce. There is far too much news out there for anyone, even a dedicated news geek like me to get even a tiny fraction of it. Most of it derives from the same handful of sources and the same soundbites, photos or video clips. But because there’s so much of it, we need to make decisions about what to bother with and what to care about. Making those decisions is hard, time-costly and frankly more hassle than most people bother with, so they rely on a couple of outlets to do it for them. They don’t care about the specifics of the content; they’ll take the story from the first outlet they see it, and sometimes, but not usually, they’ll go for seconds on another site. It’s this decision-making process which has value, not the content itself, because the content is frequently the same anyway. It’s the monitoring, targeting and alerting which is valuable, not the content. None of NZ’s online media show the faintest inclination of understanding this. They’re labouring under a delusion that their article derived from the government press release is somehow better than the other lot’s article derived from the same release. It ain’t.

    2. Cargo cult new media mentality. Old media don’t understand new media, almost by definition, and like when your dear old dad tries to talk jive, they inevitably end up looking like idiots when it comes to this sort of thing. The interconnectedness, relevancy and drive toward customisation and personalisation in the news is primitive because the news media outlets have gone through the motions of making their media new, but haven’t actually done it. They’ve built the little hut and mowed the grass strip and talked into the seashell and they can’t figure out why the planes aren’t coming with goodies.


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