Use the Digital Taliban for what they are: parameters and change agents (not business model experts)


This week, INMA released a new report titled “Recreating Value for News Content In an Age of Abundance.” I authored the report, which injects the consumer into the newsmedia industry's paid content debate – a rarity. I hope it adds dimension and insight into the complex discussions about paid content happening at media companies worldwide (click here for more on this report or click here listen to a podcast interview with E&P's Fitz & Jen).

As I move on from this report to tackle the next report for INMA (“Newsmedia Outlook 2010”), I'd like to reflect on something disturbing that I took away from researching the “Recreating Value for News Content” report.

I don't know where this fits, but I need to get this off my chest.

Like learning Santa Claus wasn't real, I no longer believe in the Digital Utopiasts who spread good cheer and always have a map about the new order of information architecture in their coat pocket.

I think they serve a good purpose – stirring the pot, a parameter in the debate. Yet scratching below the surface of their Taliban-like rhetoric and passion, the straw man collapses when confronted with the real world of business plans.

The Digital Utopiasts want the Bottom-Line Guys to fail so a new order can be imposed on how people consume information.

The issue, for me, is that INMA members are employed by the Bottom-Line Guys. They have to demonstrate that professionally curated content is superior to chatter. We have to help them see what unique value they can bring to organising that chatter and, yes, still make a contribution with professional journalism.

The Digital Utopiasts, while serving a useful purpose, essentially fuse a digital mindset with a journalism mindset. The journalism community is sometimes fine with the idea of newspapers failing because they assume their talents will be utilised by whatever new order replaces it. The Digital Utopiasts have a certainty about the future of media that, upon further review, is just a good guess and an intriguing alternative to today's information architecture – but nowhere near a business plan.

They argue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ... and profits be damned. They're for democracy. They argue that all eyeballs are created equally. They argue that bigger is better, and the advertising will eventually catch up to this.

I seek a middle ground between old and new, proven and unproven, evil and good, light and darkness. I seek the nuances and degrees. I want to take the Digital Utopiasts' passion for change and make it work with the Bottom-Line Guys.

Let's dispense with the myth that the Digital Utopiasts want to help the Bottom-Line Guys figure out the digital future. Yet let's use the Digital Utopiasts as parameters and agents of change.

For example, the Digital Utopiasts say newspapers and professional journalists bring little differentiating value to tomorrow's information landscape. Fine.

What's your answer, newspaper executives? What unique value do media companies bring to the news and information ecosystem that is being recreated today? The Digital Utopiasts are on every TV channel, on every web site, and in your own publications shouting how you will fail. What's your answer?

Is it that we've been around a long time? Is it that we have a “brand”? Is it that only we have the financial muscle to produce consistent, credible, useful information? Is it that we have a printing press? Is it that older people in our markets are comfortable with us?

How are newspapers, magazines, and professional purveyors of deep rich journalism different than the emerging chorus of clever and low cost-amateurs that are legitimately contributing to the emerging map that governs our daily lives?

I ask these questions because newspapers need to publicly provide good reasons to fight on. Many publishers believe this is a silly exercise, yet in the absence of differentiating reasons newspapers are being defined by critics who want to slit our throats and take our wallets.

Let's use the criticisms of the Digital Utopiasts to craft public statements about what unique value we bring to the news and information landscape. And let's push back against the people who are loudly telling publishers, “We hope you fail.”

I no longer believe in Santa Claus – or the Digital Utopiasts. They are what they are, and let's utilise their passion for something positive.

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