Returning Scarcity to News

I don’t want this to happen — nor am I suggesting by any means that it should — but let’s just imagine that the thing everyone in publishing seems to fear most comes to pass and Facebook and Google go into the news business.

Let’s say the platforms do this not by hiring reporters but by hiring editors who — aided by technology, of course — find and promote only the best of journalism: only informative, useful, original, quality, authoritative, well-reported, fact-checked, updated, corrected, clear, concise, trusted, and impactful journalism.

Let’s say they use their power to promote only this good work and not all the copies and the crap content we turn out now in the pursuit of reach and clicks: that is, the vast majority of the content we call news.

What could happen?

Well, given that the platforms are becoming primary channels of distribution of media content today — and given that they each are beginning to share ad revenue with content providers — lots of audience and value could flow to good journalism and away from commodity journalism. Media companies would be economically incented to compete to make the best journalism and they would stop wasting their resources manufacturing the crap, as it finally loses the last of its economic value. They would become much more efficient and their organizations would shrink, getting rid of staff who make commodity news; the survivors could become profitable on the basis of quality.

Users — that is, the public we want to inform — would find it much easier to find and use quality information; one would hope they could become accustomed to exercising higher standards than we expect of them now. They would no longer be assaulted with cheap click and the cheap ads that go with them. Take that, ad blockers.

<SLAP!> Wake up.

Of course, I don’t want this to happen and I don’t think it ever would. The platforms want to be technology companies, not content companies. Content, as we demonstrate every day, is a shitty business. I don’t want them to be in channel conflict. I don’t want that much power to both curate and distribute news concentrated in a few hands (and, no, they aren’t purposeful curators now; we in the audience and our content habits contribute to what is selected by their algorithms). And I want many, many voices to flourish.

My point in this fantasy is only to illustrate the impact of our current business models on the quality of what we do. Ever more content. Ever more pageviews. Ever more ads. Ever more clicks. Ever fewer pennies. Ever more crap. Ever less value and trust. That is the cycle we’re stuck in.

Yes, reach matters but less and less as an end and a business model in itself and more and more as a feeder into a — God help me for saying this — funnel to build stronger relationships not just around subscription but also around affinity, membership, service, and other models.

Only when we reconceive of journalism as a service rather than as a factory that churns out a commodity we call content, only when we measure our value not by attention to what we make but instead by the positive impact we have in lives and communities, and only when we create business models that reward quality and value will we build that quality and value.

The platforms could help by sending more attention and value to such quality journalism, but we fear that. So fine, let us help the platforms by sending them reliable signals of originality, quality, authority, trust, and value. Can we get our act together to do that?

When I talk about exchanging data with the platforms, I intend it to be a two-way exchange with data such as this. And when I talk about the platforms hiring editors, it is not to do what I describe in this fantasy — to edit — but instead to facilitate the kinds of mutual understanding that could lead to new business models built on new opportunities to create value and relevance for the public we all wish to serve.

Hey, a journalist can dream, can’t he?