What is it about Uber? Oh, sure, it provides efficient, frictionless, safe personal transport on demand. But weren’t you just as happy standing in the rain trying to hail the limited number of cabs on the street?
So then, as Ken Doctor notes in a smart (as usual) post, it shouldn’t surprise you that legacy news organizations are getting their lunch eaten by digital startups. He points out it’s Uber’s relentless focus on customer needs and reducing “friction” (eg, standing in the rain) that distinguishes them from long-protected taxi companies – not unlike what’s happening to old media.
And that’s a good object lesson in how we might want to rethink how we try to serve our communities, even in the way we create and present news.
Back to the Uber analogy for a moment. So far it hasn’t largely been in the core “news” area that news organizations have been disrupted. Actually, in a way, it’s been worse, because it’s the profitable parts of the business that have been lost. Ken notes:
…it’s in “information” that we can see the profound inroads into former newspaper territory by Uber-like competitors. For 20 years, Angie’s List has been providing service about services. For 10 years, Yelp has helped us find chiropractors, mechanics, decorators, and hot spots. For 17 years, OpenTable has taken the wait times out of making restaurant reservations. For 15 years, StubHub has steadily perfected itself, though it still works on reducing friction. Check the first screen of your smartphone and see all the life-easing local services that crowd out news apps
After all, newspapers weren’t only ever about providing “news” – important as it is. We also provided information and help readers navigate the world. Or at least, we used to.
Somehow, in this ungainly digital transition, newspaper companies mostly bungled away their advantages, opening themselves up to nibbling competition, first for audience and then for the revenue that inevitably follows it.
So what’s a legacy news organization to do? Does it make sense, at this point, to go up against the Angie’s Lists and Open Tables of this world? (Hint: No.) What real competitive advantage do news organizations still have, if we’ve already lost chunks of audience and engagement to startups? True, we’re good at – or should be good at – ferreting out information and presenting it. (Otherwise known as news gathering.) And clearly people want to know what’s happening in their world.
But we haven’t done all that much innovating in how we present that information, beyond more multimedia and, in some cases, interactivity. At the core, we still create news the way we’ve always done it:
- We decide what we want to cover.
- We go out and report on it.
- We write it up. (And create graphics and edit video and pictures, and all that.)
- We publish it. (And tweet about it, and create engagement, and all that.)
- We move on to the next subject.
That’s not so different from cab companies defining themselves as taking people from one point to another – once they get in the cab. How passengers actually catch a cab wasn’t their problem. Even in the rain.
So in the same way, we’re very good at giving people information – once we decide to do it. And maybe that’s not the way we should be thinking about how we serve audiences. If we’re out collecting information regularly – and we’re structuring that information (c’mon, you knew there would be a nod to structured journalism somewhere in here) – why can’t we use it to give people more up-to-date information, when they want it?
After all, Homicide Watch gave people the latest information on murders in DC, and that didn’t preclude them from doing more in-depth stories.
Not that it’ll be easy building the kinds of processes and systems that can give people broader, more up-to-date, reported, public interest information when they want it. But then again, building Uber probably wasn’t that easy either.
The trick is to figure out what people really need in information terms, and which of those needs we might be able to fulfil. Or, as Ken suggests:
The answer may lie in a kind of curation — not news curation, but community information curation. Could the next generation of local news companies — whoever owns them — recreate themselves as centers of information? What would that look like? Our most important question there: What is it that local consumers now want that don’t get, or that they could get better?
It’s certainly not standing in the rain waiting for a cab to come by.