Making the scarcity of quality journalism work for newspapers


The internet and mobile technology is supposed to have given us the 24/7 news cycle, which you would think would dramatically expand and increase our ability to break and expose genuine news as well as increase the demand for good journalism.

But with the exception of major breaking news events — including acts of terror, or in Australia, major bushfires and this summer, major flooding — what we really have on most days is two hours of genuine news and 22 hours of cheap-to-produce repetition of known facts, opinion parading as information, populist commentary, curated audience response and easy-to-whip-up outrage repeated ad nauseam. It's a hell of a lot of white noise.

The dynamics behind this goes to the heart of the flaws in our current business models.

Every day newspapers set the agenda, revealing to communities around the world what they will be talking about around the water cooler that day. But that agenda is being purloined by television, internet, social networking and radio news teams in the early hours of the morning before most of us have woken up. There's nothing really new in this. It's been going on for decades.

Nowdays, instead of needing to leap into reading the crisp smart pages of a newspaper when I wake at 6:00 a.m., I can stay snuggled up and gently dozing with the radio news on in the background telling me what the top three to five things are going on. Coffee, toast, getting ready for work and making sandwiches for the kids' school lunches is done in front of morning television where I pick up the popular take of the day. On the bus I'm on Facebook and reading RSS feeds about people and topics I care about and what they think of what they've heard. By the time I get to sit down with a paper and a second cup of coffee at the relative calm of work — a ritual I would kill people to protect — I find myself reading stuff I already know.

It's not the fault of the newspapers — they've done a great job and a lot of what I've heard or seen prior to reading are direct lifts from their reportage. Such journalistic quality certainly deserves more than the $1 or $2.50 we ask people to pay for it in print.

But here's the rub. Newspapers today get the story first, but we're not getting the audience first. In fact, so blanket is the coverage post-first edition, that it's hard to remember where a story originated from. So why bother spending $1 or $2.50 on an edition at all? It is the problem that trips up every paid subscriber model online.

Yet in the November edition of the Harvard Business Review, author, blogger and entrepreneur Seth Godin wrote a new take on the “high quality, high cost versus cheap quality, low price” argument for the new economy.

Godin, who has a new book out called Linchpin: Are you Indispensable? (Portfolio 2010) argues that in the ideas and technology economy, two things are in both scarce and in demand: creativity and genuine leadership through difficult times that connects and inspires people. “If you can offer both a scarce and coveted good and service that others can't, you win,” he writes.

A second piece in the December edition, “Let Emerging Market Customers Be Your Teachers,” by Guillermo D'Andrea, David Marcotte, and Gwen Dixon Morrison, argued that successful companies in new markets are those that produce goods at the cheapest prices. While there will always be a small market for expensive quality, customers in countries such as China and India are generally not interested in competitors who are a bit more expensive and slightly better quality. People want it cheap or don't bother.

It made me wonder: Are we as a society now in the middle of an emerging media market? Has consumer behaviour just not developed yet to the point where we understand that more is not always more, and that there is a place for quality of many different degrees — each attracting the appropriate price?

Certainly our business strategies as media organisations are still in the mindset that you take what's in demand (i.e., news because we now need 24 hours of it), make it cheaper and make a profit. The size of newsrooms around the world nowadays indicates that we're close to exhausted on this option and it is no longer a guarantee for success. The difference between us and our imitators has lessened — overwhelmingly because we've adopted what they're doing, not vice versa.

“People who can do difficult work will always be in demand,” writes Godin, although at the same time admitting just how hard that is to sustain.

“Our default is to do the easy work, busy work, work that requires activity, not real effort or guts,” Godin says. “That's true of individuals and its true of companies. That's because we see our role as cranking out average stuff for average people, pushing down price and at best, marginally improving value. That used to be the way to grow an organisation.”

But no longer. As newspapers, we've now had more than 10 years to recognise that this business model doesn't work for us.

Godin writes: “The world will belong to those who create something scarce, not something cheap.”

Quality journalism is scarce. The white noise of the 24 hour news cycle is cheap. Maybe rather than newspapers being a consumer product of mass demand, our journalism and its ability to set the agenda and feed the news cycle at the top becomes something we consider licensing B2B?

That would certainly give everyone something to talk about.