Journalism hates the players, but it should hate the game
By now, all of this is conventional wisdom. But, have you considered the null hypothesis? Perhaps resistance is futile. Perhaps this is journalism’s own doing. Maybe journalism’s clinging to old conventions — the way things ‘should be’ and ‘have always been’ — is the reason for its predicament. Refusal to adapt; fear of change; sunk costs; are these not the seeds of classic disruption?
“…journalists can continue to insist how the system should work — business models wrought in an age of scarcity — but the broad industry won’t achieve sustainability until it embraces and adapts to abundance.” — Me
The quantity-over-quality business models you describe are commodities. Clickbait and its ilk are entertainment outlets. They peddle an infinitely substitutable, fungible good, with which consumers engage to entertain themselves, to pass time, to stimulate emotion. It’s a rather frivolous raison d’être.
If “journalism” chooses to compete on that playing field, then it’s chosen the wrong benchmark. Journalism (as you describe it) is not a commodity. It’s a highly differentiated good.
Because “commodity content” is both substitutable and abundant, its challenge is discovery, which requires tactics that help it stick-out in a noisy crowd. That’s a stark juxtaposition to investigative reporting, which is must-see, must-share, must-reference stuff.
We know that truly breaking stories like the Panama Papers get their just desserts. Yet, there’s a lot of other articles that goes hungry — like the necessary, daily newsflow. This raises a fundamental issue for journalism: oversupply. For example, there are far too many duplicated efforts in what I call “commodity news.” Daily accounts of current events don’t require overlapping coverage from innumerable media outfits. There is no barrier to entry, therefore there is no business to be made.
That’s another example of journalism’s blissful ignorance. Publications are no longer destinations. People don’t find the news; the news finds people. More granularly, at the real high-end, a corpus like the Panama Papers has a magnetism that makes it a destination in and of itself. Beneath that, there are infinite shades of differentiated journalism — all the way down to current events reporting. The lower on the scale, the more work you have to do to find an audience. Do you know where the audience is? The platforms, like Facebook, to whom you may outsource your CMS at no expense.
Journalism keeps thinking there’s a market failure that’s enabled the rise of clickbait — like it’s some demand-side phenomenon, not supply-side masochism. In reality, journalism itself has created and perpetuated a market inefficiency by increasing redundant supply, which it pumps into a marketplace where demand hasn’t changed. Reduce that excess supply, and the economics will improve.
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But, how does that happen? How do you get XYZ newspaper to stop carrying its commodity news? They themselves either have to realize that it’s a uneconomical business… or they’ll go out of business. Either way, supply will descend toward equilibrium.
What does XYZ newspaper replace that crucial commodity news revenue? Create differentiated content such that households want to subscribe, enterprises need to license, businesses have to sponsor, and/or brands have to advertise.
How does XYZ newspaper get from here to there? That is The Innovator’s Dilemma. I’m happy to elaborate on solutions, but that’s a whole other conversation that I’ve covered in my prior works (see below).