Posted by: structureofnews | September 14, 2013

The Sum of Parts

jeffbezosJeff 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.”

In other words, Miley Cyrus is a lot easier to aggregate than the black budget.

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.


Responses

  1. […] Il direttore del Global Business Journalism program della Tsinghua University di Pechino James Breiner, su NewsEntrepreneurs, elenca alcune delle skill necessarie nel nuovo mondo dei media per come si sta configurando. Si tratta di capacità – ovviamente – variegate, che vanno dal racconto multimediale (audio, video, foto, slide) all’analisi di grosse quantità di dati, la capacità di fare “marketing” con la propria firma e il lavoro sui social network. Un attore a tutto tondo orientato al digital first e alla creazione di senso e storytelling, di contenuti inimitabili e chiari, dei prodotti-spettacolo – un esempio recente, la timeline di Joshua Eaton di Al Jazeera America sull’affare Snowden – più che all’inseguimento del record di pageview racimolate (numeri che, secondo Felix Salmon e molti altri, non bastano più a convalidare il successo di un articolo o di un’iniziativa editoriale), per un prodotto che conoscerà inevitabilmente nuovi canali di distribuzione, nuovi utenti abituati ai consumi di Internet, a “rituali” diversi. […]

  2. Interesting thoughts, Reg. I was thinking about breaking the traditional bundle myself recently. Thoughts here (http://markhamnolan.com/2013/09/the-news-desperately-needs-to-go-netflix/) and they parallel some well-crafted thoughts from David Bauer from back in 2009 (http://www.davidbauer.ch/2009/07/20/an-itunes-for-news-try-spotify-for-beyond-news/)

    PS, we had an exchange on Twitter a few months back about Daniel Kahneman – the talk I gave citing him is online now: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TUE7pmYCBQ

    • Great Ted talk – really enjoyed it, and both the Irish election and bible examples were great.

      Re the bundle – I suspect a lot of what’s happening (and maybe I’ll write another post about it – is about what the customer proposition is or should be. Is it an ala carte menu, where you choose the stories you want to read the way you choose a movie to watch? Is it a promise of continuing availability with some actual usage thrown in, sort of the way the gas or electricity company works, or the way some freelancers get a retainer fee even if they don’t write a word? Are we paying for the confidence that the news organization we’re subscribing to will have the information I want when I want it? Or are you paying for the ease of use and navigation of good-enough content and the news judgement of the editors at the organization?

      I’m not entirely sure, and I’m pretty sure subscribers (not to mention news organizations) aren’t really sure either. Each of those propositions means different things in terms of pricing, promises and the actual news product we create.

      My main pitch is still that, while story – or any individual story – really matters tremendously, I don’t see us successfully creating the bundle out of the story as the atomic unit of it; I’d much more rather look at the value to users through things like functionality and their end-needs.

      Definitely worth exploring further, and thanks for prompting more thinking on this.

  3. […] On NewsEntrepreneurs, James Breiner, director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, lists some of the required new media skills ranging from the multimedia story (audio, video, photos, slides) to the analysis of large amounts of data, the ability to do “marketing” with one’s own signature and work on social networks; in other words, an all-round digital first protagonist who is more focused on the creation of meaning and storytelling with clear and inimitable content – a recent example is the timeline of Joshua Eaton of Al Jazeera America about the Snowden affair – than chasing page-views (numbers that according to Felix Salmon and many others are no longer sufficient to validate the success of an article or an editorial initiative). It’s a way to get new distribution channels and new users accustomed to the consumption of the Internet and to different “rituals”. […]

  4. […] The Sum of Parts | (Re)Structuring Journalism […]

  5. […] The Sum of Parts | (Re)Structuring Journalism […]

  6. […] Watch D.C. was a project in what Reg Chua calls “structured journalism.” This, I truly believe, is what set Homicide Watch D.C. apart from all other murder blogs, […]

  7. […] Bezos believes he can turn The Post around not by installing more expensive paywalls, but by integrating it with tablets. As more people switch to reading e-books on their Amazon Kindles, Bezos probably thinks that […]

  8. […] you more interested in the subject matter, homicides in DC itself, or in the experiment of “structured journalism”, when you first start? What about […]


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