“A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”
Those famous words of U.S. inventor, engineer, and businessman Charles Kettering could have been a motto for newsmedia organisations — specifically newspapers, which have been very good at stating the problem for many decades.
Some believe one of the primary roles of the Fourth Estate is just that: uncovering problems that are unseen by — or intentionally hidden from — the general public. The press has played a significant and important role in exposing those problems and continues to do so today.
Newspapers have done it well because they have had the people, money, time, and patience to invest in uncovering the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of society. But the times, they are a’ changin’. And newsmedia organisations will have to do more in order to successfully compete for audiences.
Today, they must compete not just with other news outlets, but with the “connected collective,” those millions of individual publishers who each has an audience of about 130, and the ability and inclination to expose the failings of others.
Search for “fail” in Google and you’ll get half a billion results! Even “epic fail” returns 188 million links. So by the time the morning newspaper screams, “Politician lies again,” it is quite likely most people will have heard that news from a Facebook friend who has labeled it an “epic fail.”
So what must newsmedia organisations do to differentiate themselves?
They have to tackle the other half of the “problem solving equation.” In other words, it is no longer good enough to identify the problem, name the person responsible, and ask for their resignation.
To stand out, we have to propose a solution. Or better yet, propose multiple solutions that should be considered. This is something the audience cannot do, at least not as well as newspapers. It is easy to label something with “fail” and distribute it to your 100 contacts. It is much more difficult to propose a solution.
This would shift the emphasis of reporting from finding the culprits to finding the answers.
Marketers can sell answers. After all, that is what the majority of marketing messages do: they offer solutions to problems.
The objection from those long in the business is that solutions are positive, and problems are negative, and “Plane lands safely,” doesn’t sell newspapers, (although it does when the plane lands in the Hudson River).
But today our world is being deluged by bad news, from fail blogs to almost any political advertising. So headlines that once grabbed attention and sold newspapers are now just part of the cacophony of criticism that clogs our in-boxes, social networks, and brains.
Making this shift is not easy. When Kettering said, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved,” he should have added, “but that’s the easy half.”
If it were easy, the Internet would be filled with solution blogs. And I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.