Content vs. Service

Is news really a content business? Should it be? Perhaps defining ourselves as content creators is a trap. That worldview convinces us that our value is embodied entirely in what we make rather than in the good people derive from it. The belief that our business is to produce a product called content is what drives us to build paywalls around it — to argue that the public should pay for what we make because it costs us money to make it and, besides, they’ve always paid for it. It motivates us to fight over protecting our content from what we view as theft — using copyright — rather than recognizing the value that content and the information in it can bring in informing relationships. As content creators, we separate ourselves from the public while we create our product until we are finished and make it public — because that is what our means of production and distribution long demanded; only now are we learning to collaborate during the process. Our monopoly over those means of production also convinced us that we could own, control, and wield pricing power over this scarcity called content.

These circumstances left us ill-prepared for a technological era when copies cost nothing; when content and thus competition are abundant; when information becomes a commodity the instant it can be passed on with a link and click; and when the value of information — before it is spread and known — has a half-life now measured in milliseconds. Content, it turns out, is not a great business.

To suggest that we are not in the content business is to argue that journalists are not primarily storytellers: high heresy indeed. That idea pulls the rug out from under everything we assume and hold dear about our craft and trade: our job descriptions, our production processes, our legal status, our measures of success, and certainly our business models. Fear not: Content will continue to be valued. But content’s value may be more as a tool than as an end in itself and certainly not as our only product.

Well then, if we are not in the content business, what business are we in? Consider journalism as a service. Content is that which fills something. Service is that which accomplishes something. To be a service, news must be concerned with outcomes rather than products. What should journalism’s result be? That seems obvious: better-informed individuals and a better-informed society. But who’s to define “informed” and who’s to measure success: journalists or citizens? Jay Rosen challenged me on Twitter, saying that if journalism is a service then it must have terms of service. Shouldn’t it be the public that sets those terms?

Journalists have believed that informing the public is their job and that the role of editors is to decide what the public ought to know. We set the terms of service. We define what it means to be an informed citizen. We often complain as well that too much of society is ill-informed. Let’s put aside that rather paternalistic attitude toward the public we serve. If we do not believe in the will of the public to be informed, then we might as well give up on democracy, free markets, and the ideals of education, not to mention journalism. I am confident that there will continue to be a market demand for the information a society needs to function. That must be an article of faith if we are to hold out hope to sustain journalism.

Let’s also acknowledge that, in the oft-quoted and misquoted words of Dan Gillmor, our public knows more than we do. So our job isn’t only to inform the public. It is also our job to help them inform each other. In the past, when somebody knew what others needed to know, we had limited tools to spread that knowledge: a reporter found the expert, witness, or official to answer a question and the news organization distributed what she learned. Now we have more tools at hand that allow communities to communicate directly. So perhaps our first task in expanding journalism’s service should be to offer platforms that help individuals and communities to seek, reveal, gather, share, organize, analyze, understand, and use their own information — or to better use the platforms that already exist, from Twitter to Facebook to Reddit. The internet has proven to be good at helping communities inform themselves, sharing what’s happening via Twitter, what’s known via Wikipedia, and what matters to people through conversational tools. Comments, blog posts, and tweets — nevermind their frequent banality and repetition and sometimes incivility — tap the cultural consciousness.

Of course, there is much that a community needs to know that is not in that exchange of information. That is where journalists can and should add to a community’s knowledge by asking questions that are not already answered — by reporting and investigating; by adding context and explanation; by finding and including expertise in the discussion; by weighing trust and authority; by checking facts and debunking assumptions and rumors; by making information accessible through narrative or visualization; and by packaging and presenting through editing, curation, and discovery. Most of those skills are old: what journalists have long done, only now made faster. Some skills are new, facilitated by technology: presenting data for the public to interrogate; making tools; convening discussion; organizing activities. So, yes, there is a need for journalists. But simply distributing information is no longer our monopoly as gatekeepers and no longer a proper use of our scarce resources. Without that monopoly on information, we can no longer claim that it is up to us to decide what the public should know. People can more easily find out what they need to know without us. Indeed, the more we help them do that on their own, the better: The public is better informed; journalists have more opportunities to add their value; and the entire enterprise of news costs less.

This idea of outcomes-oriented journalism requires that we respect the public and what it knows and needs and wants to know. It forces us to stop thinking that we know better than the public. It leads us to create systems to gather the public’s knowledge. Recall that this was the key insight that led Larry Page and Sergey Brin to invent Google’s search and business: They trusted the clicks of the users. They created a system to observe and learn from those clicks, using that data to help them organize the world’s knowledge and make it accessible and relevant to every user as an individual. Doesn’t that also sound like a restatement of journalism’s true mission?

Let me apply these ideas to a practical example: In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey, where I live, and New York, where I work, my information needs were clear: I wanted to know which streets were closed, where power was out, where power crews were working, what gas stations were open and stocked, what stores and restaurants were open (and had wi-fi), and which transit lines were operating. Most of that information — that data — is best presented in constantly updated lists. But news media mostly gave me articles, which only summarized that data and guaranteed its incompleteness as well as its staleness and eventual inaccuracy. Narratives informing me that a lot of trees had fallen and many homes were without power — salted with quotes from fellow residents — told me nothing I didn’t already know and nothing I needed. The shortcomings of the article are a necessary condition of our prior means of production and the business model that resulted. We needed to package information into the confines of pages or shows — thus, stories. We could afford only so many reporters and they had only so many ways to gather information directly, so our knowledge was necessarily incomplete. Those conditions no longer apply. We have new ways to gather more information from more sources and to make it available to individuals as they need it. And we have the means to find out what they need.

Imagine if a local news site had put up a simple map allowing residents in town to post pictures of their streets and neighborhoods with captions — metadata — telling us which streets were closed and where power crews were working, with time used as a factor in displaying relevance. The site needn’t have built that map. It could have employed functionality from Google Maps, SeeClickFix (a service that lets neighbors report problems around them), or Ushahidi (an open-source platform to collect and present information on maps). And then the local media organization could have used its power to convene the community’s attention and urge neighbors to share more information. Working in networks with local bloggers, the editors could have combined the knowledge of many audiences, many communities. The news site’s reporters could have contributed more data, obtaining information from the power company and local government about where they said their crews were working — and then asking residents to confirm the truth of authorities’ assertions. (This is an example of journalistic skepticism and follow-through that was sadly missing in coverage in my town.) By providing the means for residents and officials to share data, the news organization can effectively and efficiently check off many of my information needs.

Where there’s a checkmark missing, that is where reporting is needed. That is when the journalist challenges the utility over its inaccurate dispatches or calls the schools superintendent to ask what her requirements will be for reopening. The journalist can ask the people in town what else they need to know. If the platform that the news site provides is flexible enough, then users will take it over to meet their own, unpredictable needs (such flexibility is a necessary criterion of a true platform). My neighbors with generators could have posted offers to let others charge their phones, and neighbors without generators could have banded together to buy them before the next storm (allowing savvy electricians to see the discussion and bid for the business).

This worldview resets the essential relationship of the journalist to the public. It says the public knows more than the journalist. It makes it possible for the journalist to listen to the public’s needs. It not only creates a collaborative relationship between journalist and public, it puts the journalist in the proper role as servant to the public, following its lead. This is more than crowdsourcing — that is, sharing work with the public, asking them to complete the jobs that journalists already do. This arrangement allows the public to use tools as it sees fit to share the information it wants to share. That is a way of envisioning journalism as a service, not as content.

If we see content as a tool in the service of journalism and of our communities — rather than as an end and as the essence of our business — then we change more than our relationship with the public. We change our processes: We listen first and open channels to do so. We build systems that help a community to share what it already knows — the more the better — and we monitor that flow of information and conversation to see where our skills are needed to anoint authority, eliminate repetition, correct errors, improve presentation, fill in blanks. We change our job descriptions: I’m not suggesting that journalists all become coders, the better to build platforms. But we should begin to see ourselves as enablers, sometimes educators, even organizers and, yes advocates. We change how we measure our success — on the number, depth, quality, and value of the relationships we build — and how well-informed and well-equipped people are as a result. Perhaps we reconsider even our defensiveness over copyright, if we are no longer the exclusive creators of all news content but also are redistributors of others’ information. And that, of course, depends on whether we manage to change our business models (which I discuss in the third part of this essay), building value in relationships rather than in merely manufacturing a commodity: content. Once again, that is Google’s, Facebook’s, Amazon’s, and eBay’s bet: that knowing and then anticipating individuals’ needs will generate value, whether through fees or advertising or commerce.

I had lunch sometime ago with a former TV news executive who complained that Google and Facebook use media’s steel to make their cars — that is, that they commoditize content, using it to extract greater profit from their high end of the value chain. “Mark Zuckerberg,” he said, “does not respect content.” I thought about that for a moment and disagreed. “No,” I said, “I think Zuckerberg respects content more than we do. We respect only the content we make. If content people don’t make it, it’s not content, it’s junk.” But Mark Zuckerberg finds value in that supposed junk, as does Larry Page. They recognize that the content the public creates in its sharing and conversation online can generate signals about both the information and the individuals: Who they are, where they are, where they’re going, where they’ve been, whom they know, what they know, what they want to know, what they want, what they like, what they buy. All those signals enable those companies to target content, services, sales, and advertising to users, giving the users relevance and treating them as individuals and not merely as members of a demographic.

I told this executive a story I’d written in What Would Google Do? about seeing Zuckerberg questioned by a powerful media executive at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos. “Mark,” the executive implored, “tell me how to make a community. We should be able to own communities. Tell me how.” Zuckerberg, a geek of few words, answered with two: “You can’t.” Full stop. After an uncomfortable pause, he told this room full of media executives that they were asking the wrong question. “You don’t make communities,” he said. “Communities already exist. They’re already doing what they want to do. The question you should be asking is how you can help them do what they want to do better.” His prescription for them was to bring communities “elegant organization.” That’s what young Mark did for Harvard and then the rest of us. That’s what journalism has long attempted to do, and that is how I came to the definition of journalism I shared in the introduction: helping communities organize their knowledge so they can better organize themselves. Now we have many more and some better ways to do that.

If our role as journalists is to help communities better organize their knowledge and themselves, then it is apparent that we are in the service business and that we must draw on many tools, including content, and place value on the relationships we build with members of our communities. We are in the relationship business. So now let us begin to catalog the forms those relationships can take with the people we serve, with the ecosystems in which we work, and with our business partners.

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