Jeff Bezos recently visited the Washington Post, garnering loads of coverage – and why not? He’s smart, he’s rich, and he now owns a major news organization – so it certainly matters what he thinks of what we do.
To be sure, it’s early days yet, and doubtless his views and ideas will evolve; but he picked on two key themes/issues: The “Debundling Problem” (what Nicholas Carr called “The Great Unbundling” sometime back), and the “Rewrite Problem.” Both matter to the financial future of the business – and certainly they’ve both since been debated in the pages of the paper he bought, and elsewhere. But perhaps they’re really both sides of a different issue – call it the “Sum of Parts Problem.”
About which more below, and some suggestion on how we might want to reframe and rethink this- but first, let’s look at the points he raised.
The “debundling” issue is pretty straightforward: Newspapers used to offer readers a package of news (and ads) in a convenient and digestible form, even if not all the content in it was the best available, or appealed to all readers. But now readers can much more easily pick and choose from a plethora of sources, erasing the value of the bundle and forcing news organizations to compete on the basis of individual articles for traffic and lower-and-lower ad rates. The result hasn’t been pretty for bottom lines. Then add to that the “rewrite” problem he mentions, and things really start to look ugly.
…Bezos suggested that the current model for newspapers in the Internet era is deeply flawed: “The Post is famous for its investigative journalism,” he said. “It pours energy and investment and sweat and dollars into uncovering important stories. And then a bunch of Web sites summarize that [work] in about four minutes and readers can access that news for free. One question is, how do you make a living in that kind of environment? If you can’t, it’s difficult to put the right resources behind it. . . . Even behind a paywall [digital subscription], Web sites can summarize your work and make it available for free. From a reader point of view, the reader has to ask, ‘Why should I pay you for all that journalistic effort when I can get it for free’ from another site?”
Precisely. For all the discussion of paywalls – and thank god the worst of the ideological wars about them are over now – there is a less-discussed but just as fundamental issue about the value of stories in an age where they can be cut-and-pasted and emailed around the world nearly instantly, or as Bezos notes, simply summarized. There’s clearly value in getting some kind of news first, of course – financial professionals pay thousands of dollars a month for that kind of edge – but the vast majority of news just isn’t worth that much to that many people.
The new owner suggested that one solution might be to recreate what he called the “daily ritual bundle” of news, perhaps via tablets.
Bezos believes that tablets might give us a way to recreate the [daily ritual bundle] in a way that matches the satisfying package of the print paper. He praised print newspapers as evolved products in their design, contrasting them with news on the Web or mobile devices: “The information hierarchy is more visible. You can tell what’s more important.
I’m all for great design – and even more so for great information design. But while that does provide real value, is that enough to restore the bundle? And in any case, tablets don’t protect you from the rewrite problem; they may give people more reasons to buy your package, but they can’t really prevent the chunks of your content from leaking out.
Some argue that’s just the way the new world is; or that really good content can’t be easily summarized, as Erik Wemple notes in his blog at the Post:
BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith tells the Erik Wemple Blog that original content “is the thing that goes big as the web shifts away from search and toward social.” And Advertising Age’s Simon Dumenco challenges Bezos’s formulation about the ease of aggregation: “[T]he truth is that real journalism, hard-hitting journalism, in-depth journalism about serious topics, isn’t that easy to steal, briskly sum up and make click-worthy,” notes Dumenco. “[I]t’s typically not hard-hitting stuff — it’s ephemeral, fun (or fun-ish), generally pointless pop-cultural stuff that’s getting heavily and widely aggregated.”
Perhaps. But even if content doesn’t leak – or doesn’t leak as fast – there’s still the question of how good any particular piece of content your newsroom produces is, versus what’s available out there; the Post’s Timothy Lee argues that that’s the reason bundles aren’t returning;
[Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill] Joy’s Law has a corollary for the news business: No matter how good your news organization is, most of the best journalism is being done somewhere else. That’s because no publication, even storied outlets such as the New York Times or The Washington Post, can hope to hire a majority of the world’s most talented journalists.
A growing number of younger readers want to read their news one article at a time, just as they listen to music one song at a time. So if newspapers want to thrive in the long run, they need to embrace the unbundled future and treat every article as a product in its own right.
Which brings us back to the “sum of parts” issue I noted above. All these arguments, by and large, focus on the work we do as the creation of stories, articles and other individual pieces of content. And of course they matter – they remain one of the most powerful ways to impart information to people. But we need to get past the notion of the story (and other individual pieces of content) as the basic unit of what we do; for one thing, the economics of competing on individual stories are terrible; and more importantly, they don’t, on a day-to-day basis, serve readers as well as they could.
As long as we keep thinking of the bundle as being composed of stories and articles, we’ll always be vulnerable to debundling and rewriting. But if we focus instead on function – and interactivity – that changes the picture considerably. You can’t really debundle or rewrite Connected China, Polling Explorer, Homicide Watch, Politifact or Muckety. Of course, you can snapshot parts of all those sites, but what’s hard to do is to recreate the personal and interactive experience that each user brings to their visit. The New York Times’ celebrated Snowfall project also falls into this category, but there are probably real questions about how often something as complex as that can be built. Ditto news games.
Which is where the notion of structured journalism comes in. It’s a way to keep doing great – or at least daily – stories, collecting data that comes through that reporting, and using that to power tightly integrated and smart apps/sites/products for our audiences.That maintains the value of our bundle, at what should be manageable costs, and in many cases serves people better.
After all, Amazon‘s strength isn’t in the individual books or goods that it sells, some of which may be cheaper or better elsewhere; it’s in the tight integration of the site’s functionality, its data about your preferences, its design, and so on that has made Bezos the billions that allowed him to buy the Washington Post for basically what’s pocket change to him.
So we should be thinking more like that – and being as upbeat as he seems to be in this quote:
“I’m a genetic optimist. I’ve been told, ‘Jeff, you’re fooling yourself; the problem is unsolvable.’ But I don’t think so. It just takes a lot of time, patience and experimentation.”
Amen to that.