Sunday, July 19, 2009

So what is your value proposition?

Two articles out this past week should be read carefully and together. And then, if you are in the "we've got to charge readers online" camp, step back and brutally ask yourself, "Are we really producing anything they'd want to buy?"

To me, that is the biggest point to take away from Mark Shapiro's "Open for Business," a lengthy and useful reprise of the free vs. paid debate in this month's Columbia Journalism Review. In another fascinating case of online turning things around 180 degrees, Shapiro posits at the end that, perhaps, all that "process" news that newsrooms have been running away from might actually be the stuff you can charge for.

What seems clear is that mere geography simply isn't enough. I've spent the summer in the newsroom of a small community daily, and I think if a hard look was taken at the daily content, little of it would entice a wooden nickel from most of its readers. As might be expected, much of the daily news agenda is driven by news releases, police reports, news conferences and similar events. The paper is worried about TV stations in a nearby city stealing its thunder, yet these are precisely the things on which it is easy to do so.

Follow Shapiro's with a piece at Paid Content from Bill Grueskin, former Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor and ME at Gureskin argues that all this jabbering over aggregatgors like Google obscures the real problem. What is it? Well, here's his punch line:

News sites are in a heap of trouble these days, and it’s tempting to see aggregators, bloggers and other third-party sites as the villains. It’s also possible to see them as the saviors, for the users they can send to a site.

In fact, until publishers and editors figure out how to identify and engage their readers and make money off of that traffic, aggregators are more a distraction from the real crisis than the cause of it.

In other words, dear newsrooms, little of what you are doing has a value proposition for your readers. Yeah, those are tough words to hear - and I've said them enough, too. And, as Shapiro kind of glances by in his piece, they raise tough philosophical questions, such as if my newsroom can't do it all, what does it stop doing? Put another way -- Whom do we leave out, which some scholars would rephrase as whom do you marginalize? (Famously expressed by Tuchman in one aspect as the "symbolic annihilation of women.")

Mark Potts also takes up the idea:

Think newspapers are full of unique content? Well, sit down some day with a copy of just about any paper and circle what's truly unique and unavailable anywhere else. The result isn't pretty. Do the same thing with the paper's Web site, and you quickly realize that the problem is compounded by presentation that just isn't very compelling, to put it charitably.

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