MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, Mass.

Buzzmachine’s Jeff Jarvis on transforming news: Stronger relationships, more service, & better tools for helping people

By Matt Carroll <@MattatMIT>

The “Future of News” at the MIT Media Lab spoke recently to Jeff Jarvis, one of the top commentators on the world of journalism and how it can transform itself by rethinking the core tenets of the industry: We are not in the content business, he argues, we are in the service business.

Between 2007–2014, Jarvis has been named one of the world’s 100 media leaders by the World Economic Forum at Davos. The professor at CUNY directs the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. He has written three books, the most recent of which is Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News.

In his new book, Jarvis, talks about the challenges facing the news industry and also the tremendous opportunities for creating new and more robust avenues for serving the public.

Jarvis, who blogs at Buzzmachine, sees building relationships with people as individuals and communities as a key to the survival of news organizations. He describes how those new relationships might look:

  • Journalists need to understand and interact with people as individuals and communities, rather than as a mass.
  • Journalism needs to shift from creating content to providing service, helping the people we serve better meet their goals and needs.
  • The industry needs to make tools that transform journalism into a platform with greater utility.
  • It needs to work collaboratively with the public and the growing news ecosystem.
  • And journalists need to recast themselves as more than storytellers. They need to think of themselves as conveners, partners, educators, organizers, and even advocates.

Journalism is in the relationship business, Jarvis argues, and that is key for survival.

Journalists must know people as individuals and as members of communities so they can serve them with more relevance, and building greater value as a result. This “will be a necessity for media business models, a key to survival and success,” he writes.

Looking at people and communities as individuals can be a difficult concept for journalists who think of people as the “mass” in mass media. But it’s essential for change.

“If we provide users with better relevance and value, that will lead to better engagement, loyalty, usage, and attention,” he says.

Journalists should understand the needs of their readers and viewers and how to meet those needs. “Heck, your local plumber knows more about you than your local paper probably does,” he said.

He’s not arguing that everything about journalism needs to change — maybe just 20 percent. But it’s a critical 20 percent. And that other 80 percent is also information we need to know, he says. If you can increase relevancy by that critical 20 percent you increase engagement and value significantly.

“Journalism has no end of new opportunities and our problem is that we have not explored nearly enough of them,” writes Jarvis.


Forget about journalism as a content business, he says. It should be about service. Content fills something. Service accomplishes something. It must be about outcomes rather than products. Journalists must ask how they add value to inform a community.

One definition of journalism he uses is: “Helping a community better organize its knowledge so it can better organize itself.”

News organizations must work harder to get a better sense of their role in this new world, and that means building better relationships with their audience and using its data to get a better idea of who they are. Doing that will help news organizations create more value by giving them an edge when selling advertising to local companies.

Working to get more data from readers and viewers is perhaps a contrarian goal in the Edward Snowden era, but it’s a necessity, Jarvis says. And it’s not an impossible task. People routinely turn data over to companies. ConsiderWaze, he says. “I tell them where I live, where I work.”

“We need data to build value relationships,” he says. People are “having fits about privacy,” he acknowledges. “But I think it is possible for news organizations to build a relationship of trust, an exchange of value.”

Local news sites should know where their audience lives and what it cares about. And local news sites should better at this than a giant, international company like Google. They should be able to help you find local places to eat and be entertained. Journalists need to better understand how to personalize the delivery of information.

Jarvis describes how one publisher spent enormous energy driving readers to his site. But a big percent of those readers came from outside his geographic area. What use were they to local advertisers? Not much. The publisher would have been more successful had he better targeted his market. It would have been much better for his business model, Jarvis says.

News is a platform, Jarvis says, but news organizations have been slow to realize this and take advantage of their unique position. For instance, he notes, newspapers have had restaurant reviewers for decades. But it was others who built apps for finding and rating restaurants in the neighborhood.

“Look at all the platforms that now do restaurant reviews, and they are much more efficient than a restaurant critic,” says Jarvis.

It doesn’t mean that journalists have to build giant software applications. “A hashtag can be a platform,” he says. Newsrooms can use existing technology from wikis to databases to surveys, or work through social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Journalism must have greater utility, he says. Journalists need to work and collaborate with the public and other members of the news ecosystem. Journalists also must move past articles, says Jarvis. Not that he wants to kill off articles — they are a great form that has been perfected over the past century.

But instead on a long string of text, why can’t the background paragraph be reduced to a link? Or a video. And there’s so much more that can be done with data, sets of information, curations, and creating conversations.

Also, don’t try to remake the wheel. If another site has better information, link to it. Don’t bother wasting time and resources recreating it. Do what you do best and link to the rest, is a popular Jarvis-ism that has become a shorthand way of saying: Stick with your expertise, and link to what others are good at.

Matt Carroll runs the Future of News initiative at the MIT Media Lab. He can be followed at @MattatMIT.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Matt Carroll’s story.