Posted by: structureofnews | June 11, 2021

Oldies Are Goodies

So it’s been a while. OK, a very long while. OK, a very very long while.

But since this post is about the value of old stuff, perhaps it’s appropriate it’s been three years or so since I wrote a real new post. (Although the real reason for not writing for a while is, as I’ve noted here, that I’ve been kinda preoccupied.)

In any case, I was struck by this interesting article at Digital Content Next that asks the thought-provoking question: What if the value of news isn’t what’s new? It cites the example of the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest national paper, which is starting a subscription service – not for current news, but for anything older than seven days old. In other words, the “new news” is free; it’s the “old news” you have to pay for. As the piece notes:

So, can an approach like this work? Can you effectively sell a “news” subscription where the content you’re charging for isn’t, well, new?

Spoiler alert: Yes.

Or: Probably yes. Or: Possibly yes, if… And we’ll get into what those ifs are, and some reasons more people aren’t trying this strategy. And why, perhaps, they should.

But back to the article, which goes on to cite examples like National Geographic, Esquire and others that have managed to monetize their archives. The Daily Nation may well be the first – I admit, I haven’t done exhaustive research on this – to bank its entire subscription strategy on selling, well, old news.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. True, some readers/users really value getting information first – and certainly I work at a news organization which is largely built around speed, sometimes to the tune of milliseconds. But let’s set Reuters and the like apart for a moment, and focus on the vast majority of other newsrooms. A lot of news is widely reported, and if the information is behind a paywall at one site, I can probably get the gist of what I need to know from another site. True, I may really like one news organization’s take on a particular event, but in many cases there’s not necessarily enough differentiation to make me take out my credit card.

Sure, there are exclusive stories, features and deep investigative work, but most news sites pin their value on news.

But speed is only one metric that readers value. As I noted a decade ago:

All those events mattered in some way or another, but knowing about them minutes – or even hours – ahead of others isn’t critical to most of us. What often matters more is the thoughtful, considered analysis of events, or perhaps the exploratory database/interactive that lets us understand the information on our own terms, or the insightful commentary piece a couple of days later.

And that’s where archives – or previous reporting, or well-structured data – can really bring new, and sometimes instant additional value to an audience. Very few events happen in a vacuum; if there’s a plane crash, how many others happened at that location, or with that airline, or with that type of aircraft? If a politician makes a claim, who else has made the same assertion, who has debunked it, what other claims has he or she made? And so on.

Yes, a good journalist can dig that all up in the heat of coverage, and get it into a well-written and nuanced story. But it’s tough to do on deadline. More importantly, much that information probably already exists in the site’s old stories; why not just let readers find it – or better yet, let it find readers?

That’s the trick – not to just let readers hunt for historical stories, or even just surface related articles from the archive, but to really use the information in those stories as the building blocks of new stories, databases or information graphics, and created automatically. That’s the idea, at least, behind structured journalism. (You knew I was going to get to that at some point.) And that’s part of the broader idea that there is embedded value in older information.

And if that’s too complicated, we could at least make our archives more useful to readers.

So would this be a compelling subscription offering? Maybe not by itself, but it would certainly enhance the value of a site beyond telling people’s what’s new or letting them find a five-year-old article. And more importantly, it situates users and their needs at the center of the experience, rather than what we produce and what we’re good at.

The Digital Content Next article puts it well.

So, why is there reluctance to make these archives the core tenet of a news subscription as the Daily Nation has done, rather than hitching our future to up-to-the-minute coverage? It’s partly due to a discrepancy between what journalists and editors value versus what audiences consider worth paying for. I recently spoke to Ramus Kleis Nielsen, the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, about that dissonance. He argues:

“When news organizations who are turning to reader revenues are trying to sell subscriptions, that light is very focused on us and not very focused on the public that we aim and claim to serve. They are the ones who have to convince. You don’t need to convince me or journalists that what we do is important, or that we want more people to engage with it and even pay for it. You need to convince the people who aren’t doing it.”

Because those of us who work in journalism focus on the now, on being first. And, therefore, we can lose sight of what audiences actually need: context. It’s natural that we should fear putting our most valuable content out there for free. This is why hackles raise whenever someone brings it up. But if what we value isn’t what audiences value? How can we know what they think is really worth paying for?

All good questions. Now just go and read my old posts. Please.

Otherwise I’ll have to write some new, up-to-date ones. And who wants that?


Responses

  1. Three years….? I guess it HAS been that long since your last post. I will definitely do some poking around in the archives… as I recall, there are quite a few goodies amongst the oldies. Meanwhile, I do hope you have time to compose and post more of these once you start the new gig! Always a pleasure to get the benefit of your insights, Gina!

  2. So love the new (re-newed attention) to archival materials “old news”, but worry like subscriptions, memberships, crowdfunding and every other “revenue” salvation technique the devil is in the details. Offering everything for a single price is maybe a first step, but should be managed as much as a data gathering step as a revenue source.

    The real value in decades of content is learning what is of value to whom for what purpose. Until you can really mine the value, you will leave most of it on the floor. Photos, audio, video, text, by which authors… Data extraction…. Now to find the highest value and scale it, so it’s not just digital dimes.

    • Ross, the devil is absolutely in the details; and when it comes to editorial strategy/information architecture for deriving value out of archive, the devil is in the CMS. And, as you say, in the data. My bigger fear, though, is that we don’t have data on what we don’t do; it’s hard to interrogate hypotheses we don’t posit.

  3. Welcome back, Gina! Great profile on the New York Times, by the way. Keep doing your great, insightful work!

  4. Great post, and welcome back! I’ve been thinking on this, too.

    There are two great challenges to overcome, which you hint at here: Finding what’s useful, and making it meaningful now.

    I think a lot about that phrase from a decade ago: “If the news is important, it will find me.” Archives sort of turn that on its head: “If the news was important, can we find it again?”

    The more broad a news site’s coverage, the harder it will be to find anything that’s not immediately being promoted. Try to find a specific story on almost any news site from last week, without using a search engine. Now try to find, say, the last five stories about climate change, or a specific city council member, or your member of Congress.

    Now, you might say that people don’t use news sites like this, but we’re not even trying to capture people who might come to our sites looking for specific information. If I want to catch up on an evolving story, my best bet is still Wikipedia, not a news site.

    FWIW, my team at work has been trying to solve this a little, with resource guides like this: https://www.usatoday.com/storytelling/covid19-coronavirus-resource-guide/

    That gets into the second problem, which is making old news relevant. I wish more news organizations still had professional archivists and librarians on staff, because finding and making relevant old information is basically their job description. I think structuring information on the way in, making it easier to find and contextualize later would be a huge help here (but of course I think that).

    Anyway, I could talk about this for a while. Glad you’re back.

    • Cris, hey, and nice to reconnect. And agreed with you on both counts. I do think we need a rethink of site and information architecture, and certainly getting archivists and librarians (and anyone else with expertise in information retrieval) involved makes a lot of sense. Journalists know news – and often that’s defined as what-we-published-today – and we tend to privilege that. Maybe that’s not what readers really value – and it’s hard to divine an answer from the data, not least because of problem one you outline above: you can’t find some of the things you might be interested in from the archive.

      Wikipedia is an interesting use case for news; so was the late lamented Circa, and Living Stories. All good and interesting experiments (well, not Wikipedia, which is alive and well) that we should learn more from.

  5. Boy, from the comments welcoming a new post here and elsewhere I feel I like I’ve returned from a five-year trek in the Amazon. But nice to hear people like to read this stuff, and renews the drive to keep doing it.


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