A week ago, Raju Narisetti waxed on about the cost of “free” in news media. The title of his post is misleading. The natural expectation, after we’ve been disappointed so often by narrow thinking, was that the post would turn into another defense of paywalls. In fact, he explores some great ideas about what must be done — and done quickly.
There have been a number of shifts in the newspaper business in recent years. Not all of them are obvious either: certain niche content producers are making more money and addressing their revenue challenges by charging subscribers directly (Consumer Reports and the Wall Street Journal are notable in this group). Community weeklies are actually a growing segment of the newspaper industry. Of course the general trend is a decline and by most accounts it is a precipitous one.
That’s what is so refreshing about Narisetti’s analysis: he calls for a radical shift in thinking. If you are falling off a cliff, quick deployment of a parachute is needed, not a slight change of direction. Digital delivery of news is paramount. So the first notion that newspapers must dump is that their print side is the dominant side and is the future of their business (even thought it currently makes more money than the web). Next, the way the web version of most newspapers is delivered is sub-optimal and must improve. This is not surprising given the first notion (the web is an afterthought and is based on the print version of the paper). Here are some of my observations, inspired by what Narisetti says:
- Web sites are organized by section (like the paper). The reader “browses” section by section.
- The sites have an opening screen of content that scrolls and anything that does not appear on the first screen is called “below the fold” (like the paper).
- Many sites simply load up in reverse chronological order, which is a tradition borrowed not from paper but from web logs (blogs), encouraging even more scrolling.
- Search, while enabled on most news sites, is notoriously bad.
Even when the experience is “improved” on new platforms there is not much improvement going on. Most iPad apps for consuming news are electronic replicas of a page-turning paper-based experience.
So Narisetti highlights all of these problems, although not in detail, and then goes on to his clarion call: make digital the first priority and innovate more.
The innovation is already on the way. It won’t be easy. Apart from the obvious inertia in traditional media preventing the shift that’s needed, there are huge technical challenges. My background in content management at IBM helps me understand and agree with what Dan Conover is talking about in his essay called Standards-based journalism in a semantic economy and its accompanying FAQ. RDF and other semantic technologies could the cornerstone of innovations in contextual, targeted content.
The future looks something like this: instead of browsing and scrolling (or even searching) to find what you want, it is delivered to you intelligently. You are a known entity. You have interests and as you read more, those interests become locked in and refined by the system. You can always travel off on tangents, but the context with which you consume news is known by this future system. Here’s a lame example: You read every car accident story. The system learns this, so stories about local car accidents will be front and center when you read the digital news. Links close by allow you to see stats and followup about other car accidents. You intuitively and organically consume the who, what, where, when, and why of any news story. And that’s possible because a news story is not just stored as narrative, but as data. Conover provides better examples on his site.
We’re really talking about what news media has always done: providing context, reporting and analyzing what is going on around us. Technology and innovation will merely improve the way this is done. All the businesses that are “killing” traditional media companies (Google et al) are really just providing the innovations that the media companies should have provided long ago.