Facts are a commodity “cheap as chips” and what the newspapers of the future should concentrate on delivering is “context, analysis and old-fashioned storytelling”, said Garry Linnell, editorial boss of Fairfax Media’s metropolitan mastheads, at last week’s Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers’ Association conference.
And the fact that I have to link to this story, which incidentally is behind The Australian‘s paywall, is evidence that Linnell is only partly right. Because you won’t find a report of Linnell’s statement anywhere else online. Nor was it tweeted, so far as I can find.
So if The Oz‘s journalist Sally Jackson hadn’t reported them, the facts about what Linnell said would not be available to us. Even now they are not a commodity, but a specialist nugget of information of interest to only a specialist audience, some of whom at least might be prepared to pay to stay in this particular loop.
First-hand reportage can still have a price. Facts that you can’t find out elsewhere may be worth paying for.
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The truth is, of course, Linnell like everyone else in newspaper land is giving his best guess as to the way forward. I don’t disagree with his core idea that news outlets operating behind a paywall will have to provide something special, specialised and unobtainable elsewhere. But I would say on the evidence of this speech he has not thought sufficiently deeply about what that might be.
In my view, the thing most likely to succeed is, indeed, facts — first-hand reportage, specialised local news and the like. Every human society ever studied has valued the exchange of news. It will remain a constant.
As today’s news media executives deal with the agonies of the present, there are a few unexamined claims that get thrown around and fond hopes and cost exigencies that are misrepresented as bright new ways forward.
For example, News Limited’s $60 million embrace of Method, best described as “the one content management system to rule them all”, and a great time-saver in allowing one set of content to be pushed out to all platforms — print, online and mobile. This makes sense in terms of efficiency, but is it really a good idea?
Another approach would be to think more fundamentally about what each platform is actually good for — what it does well — then deliberately develop different content, or different treatments of content, for that platform. Take the experience of Brazil’s O Globo, which lifted the amount of time people spent with its iPad app from 26 minutes to 77 minutes when it launched a new evening edition for the device.
Editor Pedro Doria told the International Symposium on Online Journalism that his team had decided to edit specifically for the tablet: “We should start thinking about this gadget as a thing in itself. A new and different way of doing journalism.”
It started with the time of day people use tablets. As local editorial executives have also observed, the main use is in the evenings. But they also looked at what the tablet is good for — intimate viewing, interactive content and the feel of a magazine, rather than the “templatised, spare feel of many newspaper iPad apps”.
I suspect that pushing the same content out to different platforms without deep consideration of the capabilities of the individual platforms may not be such a good idea after all.
Technology has always to some extent determined journalistic forms. The inverted pyramid grew up thanks to the telegraph, which demanded get-to-the-point brevity, rather than the relaxed correspondence-style of news reports that travelled to newsrooms on paper.
So when we think platforms, we need to think what format suits them. Some of this kind of thinking is visible at the US Digital First Media company, home of some of the experiments and business successes that are the green shoots following the firestorm of journalist redundancies and newspaper closures that hit the US about seven years ago.
The digital transformation editor, Steve Buttry, recently wrote a think piece on what the new fast-growing social media platform Pinterest might be good for. He concludes it is good for “lifestyle coverage, contests, community information and events and photography. I haven’t seen any indication that it’s useful in breaking news coverage (though that could change, or you might have some examples to show how it’s already being used).”
So presumably the Digital First newsrooms will not be pushing out the same content it serves in print and on its web pages to the Pinterest platform. It will think about what the platform is good for first. (Thanks, by the way, to newsgraf for alerting me to both of the above examples)
What News Limited boss Kim Williams was so proud to announce a couple of months ago — the investment in a one-stop shop for pushing content out to platforms — may perhaps in the end turn out to be a hobble to the kind of fundamental thinking about the uses of the technology that will be needed to make money from new media.
The core idea I am trying to convey is that there needs to be a bit more fundamental thinking going on. One size will not, I suspect, fit all.
And most facts are not cheap as chips. Finding them out is the professional journalist’s main claim to continued usefulness.