Posted by: structureofnews | December 27, 2010

It’s Not Me, It’s You

In the middle of reading Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky’s smart look at the blurring of lines between professional and amateur in a world of new opportunities for people to organize and participate.  It’s well-written, with enough real-world examples to move the book along briskly, and I highly recommend it.

There’s much to say about his insights, but I wanted to focus on a telling anecdote at the start of the book – it has to do with McDonald’s and their quest for a better milkshake.

The gist of it is that most of the researchers focused on the milkshake itself – should it be colder? Sweeter? Thicker?  But one instead focused on the customers.  And in the process, discovered that a lot of milkshakes were being bought in the morning.  By individuals.  Who didn’t drink them in the store.

Why?  As it turns out, these were commuters, who needed a breakfast they could consume while driving to work – it needed to be manageable with one hand, not too hot, and last a reasonable length of time.  Voila: Milkshake.

So, even though milkshakes aren’t traditional breakfast food, enough customers decided that it fit the bill – so, in his words, they “were hiring the milkshake to do the job they needed done.”

What has this got to do with media?  Everything.  Because we produce media – stories, newspapers, newscasts, etc – we’re very focused on what we produce, just as McDonald’s is very focused on the quality of its milkshakes.  (And I use that term, “quality,” very loosely here.)  Are our stories accurate?  Did we get a scoop?  Is it nicely written?  And so on.  Not that any of these are unimportant, any more than it’s not unimportant that you not die from drinking contaminated milkshakes.  But too deep a focus on what you do can distract you from what people what.

Clay identifies two mistakes most of the researchers made:

The first was to concentrate mainly on the product and assume that everything important about it was somehow implicit in its attributes, without regard to what role the customers wanted it to play – the job they were hiring the milkshake for.

The second was to adopt a narrow view of the type of food people have always eaten in the morning, as if all habits were deeply rooted traditions instead of accumulated accidents.

And so it is with us.  Too many of us are too focused on what we want to produce and how we expect people to consume news that we’re not spending enough time looking at how people’s behavior and consumption patterns are changing.  For example, is daily readership of information immutable, rather than an “accumulated accident” of daily delivery of newspapers and evening newscasts?  What if people come to information when they want it, rather than when we want to deliver it?  Why aren’t we building products that serve that need – instead of Wikipedia?

We also miss some other nuances when we focus on what we do rather than on what people are hiring us to do.  We think about newspapers (say) as delivery mechanisms for our priceless prose; but newspapers also serve a host of other functions, from lining birdcages to building community links to offering a surrogate identity (you’re a Guardian kind of reader rather than an FT kind of reader, for example.)

Not that these other roles are all-important, but it’s important to know that they exist, or else alternatives that we build may fail by not serving those secondary functions.  Or our current products may fail because others take on those secondary functions.

A simple example is car pooling.  The primary goal is transport; to get people to work in a cost-effective manner.  But it also serves a social function.  So if we come up with a cheap, quick public transport alternative, what happens to the yakking on the way to work?  Maybe that’s important, maybe it’s not.  But it changes.

When I was teaching my business of journalism course, I used to ask the students to imagine they were in a medieval guild of master craftsmen who painstakingly hand-crafted ornate thrones.  Then all of a sudden Ikea opens up next door, selling low-cost chairs – and worse yet, ordinary citizens get their hands on woodworking equipment and start making chairs themselves and sharing them. For free!

It’s true, the chairs they make – or the ones Ikea sells – aren’t anywhere as good as the ones the guild turns out.  But as it turns out, most people just want a chair to sit on.  That’s the job they’re “hiring” the chair to do.  And others just like making chairs, even if they do a lousy job of it.

Ornate chairs still sell, but mostly to people who want to show off their wealth (a secondary function).  And in the meantime, business dries up.  Not much fun for the guild – but it’s a fact of life that isn’t going to change.  So they need to adapt.

As do we.  But to adapt properly, we really need to focus on what people are “hiring” us to do, not on what we want to do.  And what we really bring to the table in this new landscape.


  1. […] Journalism: It’s Not Me, It’s You  —  In the middle of reading Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky’s smart look at […]

  2. […] In other words, non-journalism outlets (Quora, Wikipedia, etc) are increasingly fulfilling some of the needs that news organizations used to fill. You can argue about their quality, or whether it’s a good thing, but the fact is it’s happening – and that has real implications for how news organizations adapt to the digital world.  The beauty of the post is that it inverts the usual (capitalized) discussion about the Future of Journalism to one about the Future of the How People Get Informed.  And, as Clay Shirky noted in Cognitive Surplus, that discussion should be less about what we’re trying to do and more about what customers are hiring us to do. […]

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