What Do You Want?

A recent article in the Washington Post caught my attention because its author, Tom Rosenstiel, touched on something essential about what content is most prized today.

I’m one of those who believes that there always will be a strong demand for high quality content produced by skilled, professional journalists and writers. People will pay to read articles that are rich in facts, interpretation and perspective that people, not just through traditional subscriptions for print versions, but also online. This is the premise of the grand experiment by the New York Times to now require folks to pay for the electronic versions of the paper, after years of making it available free. It’s the latest stab at generating a revenue stream from online content; so far, most such efforts have failed or produced, at best, anemic results. For media companies, especially old-line publishers, making online content profitable is the business challenge today.

But what kind of content? Rosenstiel offers a sobering, unsettling answer. Under the sub-heading “Content will always be king,” Rosenstiel writes the following:

“The syllogism that helped journalism prosper in the 20th Century was simple: Produce the journalism (or “content”) that people want, and you will succeed. But that may no longer be enough. (italics added). The key to media in the 21st Century may be who has the best knowledge of audience behavior, not who produces the most popular content. Understanding what sites people visit, what content they view, what products they buy and even their geographic coordinates will allow advertisers to better target individual consumers. And more of that knowledge will reside with technology companies than with content producers.”

Wow! Rosenstiel is a veteran journalist and respected media analyst, and when he writes that the ground has shifted from producer to audience, alarm bells ought to be going off in newsrooms and editorial offices everywhere.

Those bells are already ringing loudly. In today’s information environment, households and neighborhoods are niche markets that content providers — newspapers, advertisers, marketers, et al — must penetrate with relevant, narrowly targeted (zipcode by zipcode) information. Content is generated not just by professional reporters, but increasingly by neighborhood “correspondents,” self-styled “citizen journalists or, perhaps most ominously from the standpoint of transparency of sources, by ad and marketing firms that are very happy to provide information on behalf of their paying clients.  Social media tweeting is all the rage because it gives a communications conduit to virtually anyone with a cellphone and internet connection, all of which was dramatically on display in Egypt earlier this year.  But who are these sources, and are they trustworthy?

In fact, the gatekeeping editorial function, which for generations acted as a screen to insure that “news” was at least based on fact and detail, is under heavy assault everywhere.  If everyone is equally credible, and there’s no way to assess the legitimacy of content providers, who’s to say whether the news we are seeing is reliable.  Meanwhile, those reporters who are still plugging away — except at the very best media companes — are less and less assigned to report and longish, explanatory articles that were the staple of newspapers for generations.  For one thing, no one can afford the time.  For another, it isn’t the content today’s market wants.

For journalism all this represents a huge milestone. The transition away from hard news to marketing-driven content is enormously consequential. As Rosenstiel suggests, it’s more important today (and more lucrative) for media companies to offer content that is discrete and personal rather than general and societal.  No one seriously wants to return to the days when news was whatever crusty, cigar-chomping editors said it was.  But are we as a society okay with turning this vital editorial function over to marketing and advertising strategists savvy about what sells?  Or, more precisely, are we prepared to embrace a society in which search algorithms increasingly determine what information is best for us?

Apparently so.  Web advertising in 2010 reached $26 billion, surpassing print advertising for the first time. Yet as Rosenstiel points out, only about a fifth of that total went to news organizations. The largest share, by far, went to search engine sites, especially Google.  What that tells us is that if the news media used to be the primary conduit to reach consumers, that day is long gone.

Where does this take us? If present trends continue, profits and influence will continue to flow in every increasing tides to those companies best able to translate demographic and consumer purchase data into content-specific “news.”  Right now, Facebook and Google are leading this growing wave of audience-related content, and the two of them are battling it out full time to know more about each of us than we do on our own. Not a comforting thought.

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