Posted by: structureofnews | October 5, 2010

Is Bigger Better?

The publisher of the Dallas Morning News recently released a letter to staff on the paper’s 125th anniversary.   Much of it is what you’d expect: Newspaper’s aren’t dead, profitability isn’t bad despite advertising declines, readers will have to pay more for news, etc.

What is different is how he couched his argument for maintaining what some people would call “industrial media,” (ie, mainstream media):

And what is newspapers’ sustainable competitive advantage? Fortunately for our democracy, it’s the scale of their newsrooms. It is important to recognize that digital technology has already leveled the technological playing field for local media. In the internet environment, the means of transmission and the devices used to access news and information are identical for all media. The sustainable competitive advantage newspaper companies have is the scale of their newsrooms and the quality and quantity of important and relevant local news and information it permits them to originate as compared to all other local media. If newspaper companies continue to reduce the scale of the reporting resources in their newsrooms, they will level the reporting playing field with local TV stations and give up their competitive advantage.

I wouldn’t disagree with the sentiments – I’m all for keeping journalists employed.  Some of my best friends are journalists.  And part of the genesis of structured journalism was thinking about how to leverage the advantages of a large newsroom.  But size, by itself, doesn’t confer a natural advantage.  It’s how the newsroom is organized and what it’s set out to do that really matters.

New York Times publisher Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr. once famously described himself as “platform-agnostic,” meaning, presumably, that he was indifferent to how the Times’ great journalism was distributed to the public.  But as many people have pointed out, you have to be platform-specific in how you deliver products and services.  Otherwise you’d simply videotape a stage play and broadcast it – if you thought your product was ‘plays’ and you were platform-agnostic as to whether people say it on stage or at home on TV.  It’s silly not to adapt your product to the medium/platform, in this case TV.  Hence the difference between plays, TV and film.

And similarly for newsrooms.  Size is great, but simply being bigger isn’t better.  You have to leverage that advantage into something you can build on – and pay for.   The goal of structured journalism is to rework newsroom processes so that a team of journalists have enough focus on a handful of core subjects to build up, over time, a real database that can power products with long shelf-life and greater value.

It isn’t enough just to have a huge newsroom – what it needs is sufficient size for the topic it’s focusing on.  Too small, and the database doesn’t build quickly enough; too large, and it’s more expensive that the revenues can support.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made for much smaller newsrooms in general in the future – not because newsrooms are bloated (although some may be), but more because the era of general-interest papers with something for everyone are on the wane.   The internal cross-subsidies that kept lesser-read parts of the paper – even if they were the more important ones – are getting unpicked by technology and competitors.

Publications will likely become more specialized and focused, and that generally means, I think, that they’ll be leaner.  It may well be that groups of small newsrooms will form, each concentrating on their own area of expertise (politics, sport, business, etc) while cooperating to produce a more general news site, and with agreements on how to share common taxonomies and processes to build out longer-term value.   And for newsroom managers and publishers, it’ll be increasingly important to ensure that the paper’s focus is tight enough that there are real synergies in the newsroom, and not seven or eight different tribes that simply coexist in the same building.

That’s all hard to do, but scale and professionalism do confer some advantages, if harnessed well.   Not least is confidence of an audience/customers that the product will be reasonably comprehensive on whatever topic it’s focused on.  That’s important if you want them to shell out money for your service on an ongoing basis.

There are a number of good comments and thoughts that the publisher made in the letter; it’s worth reading.  But the conclusion caps it nicely, at least for me.

It’s not the newspaper I am fighting to save. It’s the scale of the newsrooms of newspaper companies I want to preserve so that in turn we can preserve our democracy.

I do want newsrooms to survive, and thrive.  And to do so requires us to change them, so we can really take advantage of our advantages.


Responses

  1. […] noted in earlier post that being platform-agnostic fundamentally undercuts the platform and the product – and, […]


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