No Mas Mass Media
“There are in fact no masses,” said sociologist Raymond Williams, “there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” Without masses, what then of mass media? Media are built to serve people at scale, all at once, all the same. Our industrial wonder is that we could even accomplish that, manufacturing and distributing a complex and timely product in print or harnessing technology to reach untold millions via broadcast every single day. Our organizations and business models are built for bulk. We are invested in the masses. Hell, media invented mass.
I still hear people my age lament the passing of the Cronkite era’s grand shared experience of media, as if we all were meant to sit at the same time watching the same images of the same news. That was a short-lived era indeed, from the mid-’50s — when the arrival of television killed the diversity of voices from competitive newspapers in most American cities, leaving the lone survivors to serve everyone the same — to the mid-’90s and the arrival of the internet, which mortally wounded those monopolistic newspapers and threatened TV’s media hegemony. But the net’s real victim was not one medium or another. What it killed was the idea of the mass.
Should we continue to serve people as a mass now that we can serve and connect them as individuals? I will argue throughout this essay that relationships — knowing people as individuals and communities so we can better serve them with more relevance, building greater value as a result — will be a necessity for media business models, a key to survival and success. Yes, of course, we will still make content. But content is not the end product. It is only one tool we will use to inform and serve our communities and their members. Content may still have intrinsic value as something to sell. But now it also has value as a means to learn about a person: what she is interested in, what she knows and wants to know, where she lives, what she does — all signals that can enable a news organization to deliver her greater value and earn more loyalty, engagement, and revenue in turn. That is how Google, Facebook, and Amazon operate.
Unfortunately, we in news are not built to do that. Offline, we may have readers’ names on subscription lists, along with their addresses and credit card numbers to bill and deliver to them. Online, even if we have collected their email addresses or demanded they register by name, we still don’t have the means to gather, understand, and serve their individual needs and interests. We don’t know them. We count them. We still want these anonymous “unique users” to add up to a critical mass so we can serve them “pageviews” and sell them to advertisers en masse. Those are the mass-media metrics by which we still measure success.
I know of more than one local news site that worked so hard to perfect their search-engine optimization that they ended up attracting millions of users and pageviews from outside their markets. Those users are worthless to the local advertisers that provide almost all the revenue for these sites. These out-of-market users either wreck the performance of local ads — who wants to click on a sale a thousand miles away? — or are served low-value network or remnant advertising. I asked these sites to calculate the value of in-market vs. out-of-market users and they found the former worth at least 20 times the latter. So there is the first cinder block in building a relationship with a user: Does she live in your market? That’s not big data. It’s small data. Next, a news organization should want to learn where she lives and works so it can give her news around her home and restaurant reviews near her office. More small data. Then it may want to learn this person’s interests, gender, age, and marital and parental status. She won’t tell us these things simply because we want her to or require her to — how often have you lied on a pesky registration form? She will reveal herself to us only if she benefits in return, if she engages in a voluntary transaction built on mutual value. If we want to learn where a person lives and works, why not for example build a traffic and transit information service that helps with her daily commute? That may not come in the form of content as we know it: articles in inverted pyramids. Instead it should bring her functionality such as embedded maps from Google or Waze, travel schedules with the means for commuters to fact-check them, and a platform allowing commuters as a community to share tips, frustrations, and warnings about their shared routes to work. See, for example, CleverCommute.com.
Once we do know more about her, we can give her more relevant service as well as more relevant advertising or commerce, wasting less of her time on content she doesn’t care about and wasting fewer merchants’ dollars pitching a restaurant two hours away or trying to sell a stroller to a grandparent. The content and services we give to this person will still, of course, need to include news we believe everyone will want to know — about the governor’s race or the big storm coming — but overall the content should progressively and effortlessly become smarter about the person: personalized by giving priority to news about her town or her children’s school or her interest in tennis and the company where she works.
Media people must learn key relationship skills: how to provide services that give people a reason to reveal themselves; how to build their trust so they will do that; how to gather this data; how to analyze it; how to act on it for for the good of the users; and how to exploit it for economic benefit. It’s critical that we deliver value before extracting it. That is what Google does by giving away free services such as its Mail, Maps, Calendar, Drive, Docs, Plus, Hangouts, and YouTube. And that is why Google has entered into new businesses beyond search, especially mobile. Each of these services generates signals about people that Google can act on to provide relevance and value for users and in turn build untold value for Google. Using Google Maps on my Android phone, I gladly tell Google where I am and where I’m going so Google can help get me there. Thus Google knows where I live and work but my local newspaper doesn’t. I tell Google what I’m looking for so it can help me find it. I tell Google who my friends are in case they have any recommendations. I’m not violating my privacy and neither is Google. I’m choosing to do this. I’m gaining benefit in a relationship built on information, service, and trust. (Doesn’t that sound like the basis of a new mission for news media?)
The next frontier for Google as well as Amazon and countless other companies, from credit-card issuers to coupon services, is to get closer to our transactions. That will offer the most valuable data of all, and is one reason Google and Amazon are experimenting with same-day delivery of goods bought online, pitting them against many of the local retailers who are newspapers’ advertisers (there’s another brick pulled out of our Jenga tower). They are all fighting to know who we are, where we are, and what we want. They are trying to find ways to help us get it. These skills will be key to resurrecting at least newspapers (that is, local media companies) and magazines (that is, interest-based media companies) and perhaps broadcast (the most mass of mass media).
A local online news site should know where you live and what you care about. It should have more opportunities to learn more about you than a gigantic, global company such as Google, because it can help inform you about your town (and thus learn where you live and perhaps which issues there matter to you); it can help you find good places to eat through your neighbors’ recommendations (and so find out you’re vegetarian); it can help you amuse yourself (and learn what sports you follow and what kind of music and movies you like); it can connect you with people in a community (and discover, for example, whether you are a parent or a wrestling fan). News organizations can use this information to personalize the delivery of what they already make — that’s the easy part — but also should use it to inform their priorities and how they use their resources in building services. At About.com, where I consulted when The New York Times bought it, writers studied the search queries that brought readers to their site. If people were asking questions for which About.com didn’t have ready answers, the staff wrote the answers. Witnessing that was a *duh* moment for me. Shouldn’t all news organizations have robust means to listen to the needs and curiosities of the public? Now, some journalists will say that their work should not be dictated by public desires or else we’ll feed people nothing but … well, nothing but the gossip and gore we already feed them in abundance. There is nothing wrong with listening to the people we serve. If you discover there are thousands of cancer patients in your market, then why not add an oncologist’s blog and a cancer community? If you learn that people are enraged about train service, that’s the best reason to assign a reporter to investigate.
Relationship skills could be even more important to magazines. Some years ago, I was asked to be on a panel at a magazine industry conference. A few days before the event, its organizer called me and asked, “Uh, Jeff, are you going to say that magazines are doomed?” Before I could answer, he added: “And if you are, could you please not come?” So I asked myself whether magazines have cause for hope. I decided they should be able to make the transition to online because magazines already were surrounded by communities of shared interest and information — and the net serves communities well. But these days, it looks as if I may have been wrong. Gourmet, Mademoiselle, and Parenting are dead. So many titles are shrunken and suffering. The once-vaunted Time Inc., object of desire first for Warner Bros. and then AOL, was exiled from Time Warner to keep its bad karma away from the entertainment empire. I used to love magazines. I bought them by the pound. I worked for them. I started one, Entertainment Weekly. But I don’t buy them now, in print or on my tablet. Like magazine queen Tina Brown, I don’t even read them much anymore. Yet I’m not giving up on magazines, just as I’m not giving up on newspapers. They both still have so much potential to convene people around an interest or an idea and to serve and bring value to communities and their members.
As we in media build new skills around relationships, we must first stop seeing people as a mass. We need to know them, then serve them as individuals and communities. And so, as I will further explore in the third part of this essay, we need to shift our metrics of success from anonymous mass measurements — circulation, unique users, pageviews, email addresses — to metrics of relationships:
- How many people do we know (even if not by name but merely by location, need, interest, or behavior)?
- How many reasons do we give these people to let us know more about them (what relevant services do we offer)?
- How much do we know about each individual — how many small data points about each person have we gathered?
- How are we able to exploit that information for their benefit?
- How can we exploit this information for our benefit — through advertising, fees, data, events, or other models (which I’ll explore in the last part of this essay)?
- What communities exist among our users (for just as they are not a mass, they are not a single public, a single community)?
- And a very important metric for journalism: How informed are members of our community? As informed as they want to be? That requires that we first ask people and listen to them about their needs and the outcomes they desire and then find the best means to fulfill those needs: through platforms that enable them to share, through education, through data made open, and through reporting and narrative. This leads to our most critical measurement of journalistic value: Did the people we serve accomplish their goals?