Posted by: structureofnews | October 24, 2010

Packaging Generics

We used to call them “DBI” at The Wall Street Journal – Dull But Important stories that offered insight or explanation into complex issues that only policy wonks, or perhaps the reporter’s mother, could wade through.   Even worse, there’s also the Dull But Not Terribly Important story, too – generally, the for-the-record-but-there’s-nothing-here piece that litter large chunks of newspaper space.  Should we kill them off?

Jack Shafer, Slate’s never-dull media critic, fires off a couple of salvos in favor of that solution in his latest column, calling for an end to “generic stories” that are “usually the creation of an editorial system that attempts to do too much with too many stories when it should be giving three or four dozen pieces the time and space they deserve instead.”

He drives home the point with a list of tongue-in-cheek (or perhaps, not so tongue-in-cheek) generic headlines that can be found on any given day in any paper:

Apple To Announce New, Secret Product
Social Media in [Country X] Faces Crackdown
Middle East Peace Process Restarted
Security Lapse Exposes Private Data of Millions
Market Falls on Fear of Inflation
Market Rises on Hope for Inflation

It’s true – there’s probably not much news value in many of those sorts of stories.  But then again, what’s the definition of value to begin with?  Flash back a year to a posting by Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0, who takes a diametrically different view of value.   Writing soon after Google’s Fast Flip came out, he says:

It’s all about the package.

Newspaper articles don’t matter without a newspaper. Magazine articles don’t matter without a magazine. TV shows don’t matter without a broadcast or cable channel.

Newspapers’ inability to generate the same revenue online as in print has nothing to do with content. It’s because on the web they are no longer in the business of packaging content, and that’s what the newspaper business, like every other media business, has always been about. Instead, media companies put their content on the web and let search and other aggregators package it.

An individual content item on the web, without a package, has marginal value approaching zero — and attempting to charge for an individual item of content is unlikely to change that. What you CAN charge for is the package.

Scott may be pushing the argument a little far, but he makes a very good point.  The monetary value, at least, of what journalists do (or did) comes largely from the package, not from any individual piece of work.   That doesn’t mean that people are rushing to buy a newspaper because they’re hoping to see yet another warmed-0ver story about some new Apple product in the works; but it does mean that a large part of what newspapers brought to consumers wasn’t any single piece, but a package of selected items, put together a certain way, and on an ongoing basis.

People didn’t regularly watch Friends (or Lost, or CSI, or Battlestar Galactica) because each episode was a work of art (although, for the record, every episode of BSG was); they did it as much to stay in touch with characters they cared about, because they had expectations of some level of entertainment and engagement, and because it became a habit.  Bad shows lost audiences, of course; but what really matters to good shows is less now-and-then greatness and more consistency.  You need to know what you’re in for.   True, some shows promise unpredictability, and deliver it.  But by and large, people want to know what they’re in for when they surrender their attention and money.

Movies are different, of course – with the exception of remakes and sequels, every show stands on its own.  But newspapers and news organizations are more like TV channels or TV shows – they don’t depend on blockbusters to cover losses from box-office bombs.  And thank goodness, or we’d be out of business pretty soon.

So what has all this got to do with DBI/DBNTI/generic stories?

Only that we need to get beyond thinking about the individual story and focus more on the value each piece of work – story or otherwise – brings to the package.   So today’s school board meeting may be as dry as dust, but there may well be data points/nuggets of information that can help inform a topics page/database about education.  We don’t want dull stories about that meeting – Jack’s right there – but neither do we want to kiss off such coverage until we think there’s a blockbuster to be done.  Because Scott’s right too – that great investigation on school policy may be a critically important story to do, but we we’ll go broke trying to recover our costs from just that article.

There’s certainly value in much of our day-to-day work that can – and often does – get lost while we’re preoccupied  chasing the next great story.   We need to revamp the way we operate so that we’re building systems and platforms that can capture both types of value.

This isn’t a suggestion that we get out of the content business and into building platforms or user interfaces that simply aggregate other people’s information.  It’s to reiterate the point that platforms – products is a better word – and content have to be much better synced, so that we can generate value out of our (unfortunately usually dull) day-to-day work.

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