Seeing journalism as a niche product

One of the conclusions in Stealth Democracy is, to simplify, “some information is not necessarily better than no information.”

“Some information” means a few things, but one of them is the product of compromising on content to try to attract a wider audience. Think to when newspapers say “people are too busy to go to a jump page, so we’ll make it a ‘containable.’ That way they at least know something.” They at least know “some information.”

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse argue “some information” is harmful because, as they and others have argued, people make poor decisions in democracies when presented with incomplete information.1

“The conclusion “some information is not necessarily better than no information” has some potentially big implications for journalism.

For example, note the skepticism regarding the potential success of micropayment-funded journalism. Let’s say we’re right that many readers will run away if a news organization decided to start charging for content. To where will they run? If Stealth Democracy has anything to say about it, they will not run to the next site over to get news, or at least not news of much substance. They’ll run to someone who gives them TV listings and comics.

So, who’s left? To oversimplify (again2): People who care about what news journalists want to produce and who, hopefully, understand that producing that news comes with costs. These people understand that journalists (citizen, professional, extraterrestrial, whatever) need time to pursue the news and have to be willing to take on responsibilities to organize its delivery, presentation, etc.

I am not saying the community could not also help in all these processes (I would encourage it!), but I am saying this community may be made up primarily of like-minded people who, recognizing a social need and their having means to provide it, would be willing to compromise on a system of payment and responsibility necessary to provide that social need. If others outside of that circle wish to use it, fantastic. They’re welcome them into the group if they wish to join. But what interest would we, or should we, have in catering to them?

This could be a partnership. You have publication A for everyday, not-so-hard news, and publication B for people who want deeper coverage of events.

Publication B does not try to half-ass the news. It doesn’t offer “containables.” Because of its relatively small base of readers and funding, it can offer a deep relationship between reporters and readers/users (which can foster trust, also a good thing.) But publication A references publication B, saying “hey, someone wrote about this.” One line, one link to better coverage for people who want to know (do what you do best and link to the rest, right?).

How to monetize it? Good question. I haven’t a clue. I’m still not very good at thinking clearly about that.

:: late thought ::

The encouraging thing about the Internet is how easily this might — might — be possible. That’s why when I think about whether I’m too dismissive, I remind myself I also have an opportunity to overcome it with social networking tools and platforms.

:: related ::

Matt Thompson, of whom I’ve quickly become a fan, looks at this situation in a much more optimistic light. Worth a read.

:: notes ::

1. Lee Anne Peck has also argued against the mentality within journalism that praises act utilitarianism at the expense of asking “of what quality is the good created by our actions?” However, her argument addresses reporting practices, not necessarily output. You also could think of the times when newspapers name jurors, harming a good number of trials.

2. I keep saying I’m oversimplying because I want to stress I’m aware of when I’m doing so. The authors of Stealth Democracy make very clear their work is not conclusive, and I have no interest in trying to make it so. But I find the conclusions fascinating and, clearly, I’m interested in following them to see where they may lead when combined with more research.v

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That’s some consolation!

In a recent Pew Research Center report is the following:

As many newspapers struggle to stay economically viable, fewer than half of Americans (43%) say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community “a lot.” Even fewer (33%) say they would personally miss reading the local newspaper a lot if it were no longer available.

Not unexpectedly, those who get local news regularly from newspapers are much more likely than those who read them less often to see the potential shutdown of a local paper as a significant loss. More than half of regular newspaper readers (56%) say that if the local newspaper they read most often no longer published — either in print or online — it would hurt the civic life of the community a lot; an almost identical percentage (55%) says they would personally miss reading the paper a lot if it were no longer available.

Is it somewhat telling that only 56% of regular newspaper readers think losing a newspaper would hurt civic life “a lot”? Only 56%? Just over half?

I admit that 56% is much higher than the 25% who thought it would hurt civic life “some.” But I have a hunch that had the survey asked reporters the same question, “a lot” would have totaled at least 90%. Pew’s results suggest to me that reporters and journalists have a disconnect of some kind with readers over how important their product is.

Some might say the source of that disconnect are people belittling the value of newspapers.1 Myself, I would blame apathy.

1. Parker is a perfect example of who those hypothetical 90%-plus of reporters might be. An example, from her column I linked to: “But the greater truth is that newspaper reporters, editors and institutions are responsible for the boots-on-the-ground grub work that produces the news stories and performs the government watchdog role so crucial to a democratic republic. “

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I don’t know enough about Politico’s audience

This Columbia Journalism Review article I heard about from @ccadelago has a lot of truth to it, I think, but I wonder whether it should come with an important caveat in its use of Politico.com to argue “the life cycle of a story is no longer the simple reporting-writing-editing-publication; it’s now reporting-writing-editing-publication-syndication-conversation.”

That seems more true when you’re fighting for people who are tapped into a flood of information online. I’m thinking people who have some time, maybe an interest in politics, and who care about HuffPost and Drudge.

But what about everybody else? How useful is Garber’s argument for a local news organization whose audience is comprised of people seeking some specific information about their community — and then going off to knit? These news organizations don’t have nearly the competition of the DC media world. Need they be as gung-ho as Politico for Web eyeballs? For, as the article suggests, Politico’s strategy has implications for the kind of coverage that emanates from it.

And not having read the New Republic article yet, I’m not sure what it concludes the Politico’s goals are apart from, as Garber mentions, is “to be the most talked-about and cited in that day’s news cycle.”

But I still feel I can ask: Which news cycle is that? Who’s paying attention to it and what are their demands?

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Some questions about Kachingle

I just finished Steve Outing’s column on Kachingle, which he’s pushing as a better solution for news organizations to make money online. He doesn’t suggest it’s the end-all savior, only that it’s better than micropayments, which has been bandied around a lot lately.

I’ll leave you to read his whole explanation of Kachingle for yourself, but my slimmed down version is:

• You sign up for Kachingle by paying $x a month
• Publishers sign up for Kachingle
• You decide how much of x dollars, if any, you want to go to Kachingle-elibiglbe sites.
• Publishers have to convince you to give them money

I think Kachingle can be successful in that it plays on laziness. My suspicion is people are more likely to pay one fee per month than sign up for multiple different accounts and make different payments.

But Kachingle raises a lot of interesting questions, too.

How will people decide how much to donate? Not in the sense of, “Paypal or money order,” but what calculus will they use to decide, “here’s how much I want to pay for my content each month”? Surely there are similar systems with other products that we might be able to study. Perhaps other industries’ experiences will tell us that most people don’t pay more than the minimum. If so, can we really expect bigger organizations to survive on, say, 100,000 payments of a few cents per month?

How will advertisers react? Will they flock to companies that can prove they have a solid Kachingle following, slowly choking off ad revenue to lesser publishers?

How soon can it be rolled out — and is that fast enough?

Finally, I worry that what I said above about people’s willingness to pay one lump sum over many smaller sums may not be true in this situation. For one, you need a population that reads a lot of online content from Kachingle-affiliated publishers, because I assume readers would not understand why they need to pay one company when they want content from another.

And then, if course, I’m creating an ambiguity for myself in using the word “successful.” Does “successful” mean that Kachingle survives? That The New York Times could make the same money it does now? That the Anyblogger USA will make a little extra income?

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Which tragedies? Thinking about the Buffalo plane crash

Why was the Buffalo plane crash news? Why aren’t the small plane crashes in other countries news here? And why not the suicide bombings?

I know I’m not the first one to ask these questions, and I certainly don’t think I have much original to say about them. In fact, I actually can think of some reasons why we should pay more attention to information that comes out after a crash in our country than a crash elsewhere. Safety regulation, for one — we can’t easily make comparisons between how a plane might fare here versus, say, Russia, because the regulatory structure is different.

But why the crash itself? Why is it BIG NEWS and tragedies from another country not?

Is it news media reflecting a lack of cosmopolitanism in their readers and viewers? For me, someone dying in a plane crash in Russia, or ferry capsizing in Bangladesh, is as tragic as someone dying in a crash here. Is it that others don’t feel the same way, and that media respond to those feelings? I know if I were a newspaper editor, I wouldn’t put a ferry crash on the front page if I wanted to keep my job.

Still, how many people would say they care less about the life of a Bangladeshi than they do an American? Is it unfair to assume that most people, when confronted with the situation, would say “yeah, I guess I feel pretty bad for both of them.” Sure, I can think of plenty of Americans who would say they’d choose to protect their family over some national’s. But this is a different situation in that for most of us, our families are not involved here. Most of us are observers.

From here, I see two initial options.

1. Our news media are missing a golden opportunity for profit. If they have enjoyed success from extensively broadcasting tragic accidents on our own soil, they would enjoy similar success by presenting worldwide tragedy in the same way.

2. Most U.S. citizens (or U.S. reporters) are nationalistic and don’t care very much about the fates of people in other countries. It is therefore a better business decision for news media to largely ignore other tragedies.

The second response seems more plausible to me. But then, still, when I think about it, I can’t imagine many people not expressing some sympathy or interest in fate’s intersection into others’ lives. Do they, perhaps, simply need a news media nudge that’s currently missing (and would be harder to provide traditionally with fewer foreign bureaus*?

* Fleeson, Lucinda. “Bureau of Missing Bureaus.” American Journalism Review (2003): 32-39.

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