A little insight
One of those small insightful moments came today as I was reading a blog post forwarded through Facebook. It was by Shel Israel commenting on Twitter and a presentation by co-founder Biz Stone.
Israel talks about how, after a small San Francisco earthquake, he and dozens of others were sharing info about it on Twitter.
45 minutes later, SFGate, the official site of the ailing San Francisco Chronicle reported on the quake. As far as I could tell, that was the first quake news report through an officil channel and it was more detailed than what w had learned on Twitter. But by then, those of us using Twitter, knew most of the facts we needed and so did our friends all over the world. In fact, the incident marks the largest and most collaborative US-based example of Citizen Journalism that I know and it happened because of this simple little SMS program.And then came that little insight -- But by then, those of us using Twitter, knew most of the facts we needed.
And that, I think, encapsulates Big-J "Journalism's" problems. As news media have increasingly turned to the easier and less-costly info-bits, be it the incessant stream of cable-style "breaking news" with little depth or the more reviled "infotainment," those media have made themselves less and less relevant to their readers and viewers. Most of us need very little "information" to carry on our daily lives. Absent the control of distribution, which is long gone, this financial well is not very deep.
Which then raises another question in my mind: With the headlong rush to create "information centers," a la Gannett, and digitize everything that moves, I wonder if this is long term likely to be productive. If our information needs aren't that deep, is there an economic model here? Do people come, nibble a bit, and leave, and can a revenue stream be built from that?
It's a similar time in print and online, I think, to the late 1960s when radio was transitioning from what is known as "quarter-hour per person" to "cume" as a way of attracting advertising. KYW, where I had the pleasure of working for a summer, was a good example. That pioneering all-news operation was fighting uphill against long tradition among advertisers of buying "quarter-hour." That measure was not concerned so much with the size of your audience, but with how long each person listened. It was a throwback to the days before TV when radio was filled with "shows," and people would gather 'round the set to listen.
KYW knew it wasn't going to get the quarter-hour with a fast-paced all-news format; in fact its slogan was and still is "you give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world." So it had to sell total audience, the "cume." The nice byproduct was that while it promised to deliver a bigger overall audience, advertisers would have to buy more ads to reach that audience because of the churn. (I'll tell you at the end how KYW managed to overcome that and become, along with most other all-news stations, quite profitable.)
How does this apply to newspapers? Well, it seems to me that while papers have on the surface sold circulation, or cume, they've really been selling quarter-hour -- the idea that their readers spent significant time with the paper. Now, with the idea of the information center, they are being asked to truly sell cume, and that's going to be a tough sell in an era when advertisers more and more are looking for quarter-hour attributes (the idea of getting my message to those exact people inclined to buy and willing to spend more time viewing or listening to my pitch).
As evidenced by Israel's post, if all we are really providing is information, then the readers are likely to be easily satiated and move on.
This argues, of course, for journalism -- the more nuanced, contextually full treatment of information that puts it in perspective and gives it special value. But that can be expensive, and expensive is not particularly on the lips of a lot of news executives right now. This makes it even more important that we find new ways to preserve some of those old values, and that will be the challenge, especially for those of us training young journalists.
And really, it argues for both strategies -- the information that they can assemble and reassemble as it meets their needs to get them in your door, but the journalism to keep them there. I fear we forget it likely is a two-sided equation.
But then again, maybe you think I'm daft and that my analysis is backward. Feel free to chime in with comments.
So, how did KYW pull it off? Well, the story (perhaps apocryphal, but I think there is at least a grain of truth to it because I heard it several times with almost no deviation) was that a smart but desperate salesman knew he had to get the auto dealers on board. If they started advertising, others would follow.
He kept pressing one Ford dealer in Philadelphia's "mainline" suburbs. Finally, this salesman supposedly made a $20 bet with the dealer -- show up at your repair shop at 8 a.m., grab some keys at random and we'll go into the parking lot and see where your customers have their radios tuned. (It was a pretty safe bet, since all-news is very drive-time oriented and people taking their cars into the shop were not likely to have had enough time to get their fill of news and then tune over to their favorite music station. In addition, KYW at 1060 had a nice place on the center of the AM dial.) Sure enough, something like eight of the 10 cars they checked had the radio tuned to KYW.
The rest, as they say, was simply pouring green ink into the printing press.