Time to torture a restaurant metaphor again. This apropos of the recent post on how the economics of “good enough” are undermining the business models of journalism, and then thinking through the other factors – beyond quality – that determine price and value. And how we might make a living at this.
If that sounds complicated, well, that’s where the tortured restaurant metaphor comes in. There are lots of mediocre restaurants around, and they don’t go out of business simply because an average person can cook better food than they can. Why not?
Because – and if this sounds self-evident, it is – we look for more than the quality of food when we choose to spend our hard-earned dollars at a restaurant rather than eat at home or at a cheaper place. Sometimes it’s the service; sometimes it’s the convenience; sometimes it’s the hours they’re always open; sometimes it’s the fact that they’ve been certified and inspected by the health authorities.
Which is to say: Quality isn’t everything. It’s very important, of course – but we value more than quality when we choose where to spend our time or money. And so it is with journalism as well. And if we focus too much only on quality – whether it’s in the ideological battles of whether bloggers do good or bad work, or in advising journalists to move into higher-quality work – we undervalue some of the other elements that we bring to the table: Standards, discipline, dependability, etc.
So if you want a stock photo of a jar with coins in it, there’s no real reason to hire a professional photographer to do it; there are plenty of options to choose from. But if you want someone to shoot your building from a particular angle on a specific day, then you have to pay someone to show up. You’re paying for their reliability as much as you’re paying for their photographic skills.
And in the same way, maybe a blogger writes really well about education issues – better than your education reporter, say. But your education reporter attends every school board meeting and writes consistently about the subject, while the blogger turns to the subject now and then. So then what the reporter is promising is consistency rather than great work. Not unlike McDonald’s, which assures you that Big Mac will taste exactly the same everywhere in the world. Don’t knock it; there’s value in that, too.
So let’s say you’re a mediocre restaurant on the street where your competition provides fare of roughly the same or better quality – and perhaps people are even providing food for free now and then. What can you do?
- You could work on improving quality. Hard work, and worth a try – but it’s not easy to consistently outshine the rest.
- You could cut prices and try to make it up on volume. But that’s not a great strategy if people are giving away decent food for free.
- You could offer better service – stay open later, provide delivery service, etc.
- You could emphasize your dependability – you’re always there, you guarantee you only use free-range eggs, display the health inspection certificate, etc.
OK, so no one is going to hire me as a business consultant for restaurants. But the point is simply that trying to beat the competition – in this case, an entire world of content providers – on quality alone is a tough proposition. We’re not all Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists; many of us are just working stiffs who turn out decent work. And while lots of free content is mediocre, so is lots of professionally-created content. But as professionals, we bring other qualities to the table: we show up for work regularly and on time (mostly, anyway); we adhere to standards; we provide a consistent product.
That’s one reason I’m hopeful about how structured journalism can help newsrooms – it emphasizes discipline, hard work and consistency rather than counts on prize-winning work. Every time you write a story, you file in a specific format to a database, building value along the way. You don’t need to be a Woodward to do that. And that leverages the value of a team of people with shared goals and a consistent working style and process rather than great flights of inspiration.
This isn’t tremendously romantic, I agree. No images of meeting sources in dark alleys and toppling corrupt governments. Not that you can’t also do that. But professional journalism isn’t meant to be romantic, any more than running a restaurant should be compared with the joy of cooking. It’s work. There are great, inspirational moments in it, it’s true. But it also involves showing up for work regularly.
And so if we’re going to be confronted with a world where payment for quality – or ‘good enough’ – is a difficult challenge, let’s explore where our other skills and qualities are valued.