Over at his excellent personal blog, Steve Outing began a day or two ago a thread in which he asked the question: What is the news that people will pay for? It's a discussion which has been going on for more than 15 years, in one venue or another. I can remember exchanging posts with Bob Wyman in Feb. 1995, when he was vice president of new technologies at Medio Multimedia, Inc. in Seattle. Crosbie Fitch was one of the earliest people to post on your independent OnlineNews list. And Gordon Crovitz is certainly the person with the most experience at successfully charging on a broad scale for niche content on the web.
What's different now, is that all of the prognostications by these and other sage observers about what would happen to the news business are coming true. The pain is now great, and there is now the possibility that more than a decade of ideas will be tested. That's the promise of Journalism Online, of Cynthia Typaldos’ Kachingle,of the Project VRM coordinated by “Doc” Searls, and of CircLabs Inc., the company spawned from The Information Valet Projectwe started in collaboration with the University of Missouri's Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and The Associated Press -- the chance to finally put fresh ideas into the marketplace and test them.
Crosbie's right (above): It's time for news providers (please, let's stop using the term "newspaper" -- it is no longer about a physical product but about a service) to learn how to be paid for producing the news, not for delivering copies. "Don't sell copies," says Fitch. "Sell your work."
"Stop thinking that newspapers will make money only by covering breaking news, and look at what the marketplace will really support . . ." adds J.D. Lasica, another veteran innovator committed to finding ways to sustain and morph journalism in our new information ecology.
Listen to Bill Garber, as he notes that most of now pay as much as $60 a month for what was once free -- television. But is it really the same thing? No. We are paying for the service, he notes, of clear signals, much more choice, and -- increasingly -- time-shifted and ad-stripped programming. To say that people won't pay for the news is axiomatic. Not what the news is today. But the news service we are all creating today will become as different as cable TV services are different from the three broadcast networks of the 1960s.
"For centuries, the community newspaper oriented community members to the social and economic and political components of their community," writes Garber. It did that better than any other service could. But that product is now wholly inadequate to the competition or to the expectations of the millennial-generation users for portability and personalization.
I would add that today, news has become grist for an array of increasingly personalized and targeted services. What's the value of grist -- flour -- compared to a baked good? The services we sell have to be more than the grist, although the grist is an essential ingredient. We can't sell grist; we have to sell the baked goods.
It's painful to hear the judgment of the anonymous poster "Tearing Hair Out" when she writes: "Face it, the days of the large news organization as it existed are over. Dead. Kaput. Just fold it up already. Break into micro-units and go sell ads, or better yet, just disband." What Tearing Hair Out is really saying is that nobody is paying for unbaked flour anymore. They want a service, which incorporates all of the innovation of the last two decades. It will build on what Steve Buttry and the other folks at Gazette Publishing Company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, called "the complete community connection." It's the same thing former newspaper companies did -- supplied community and connection -- but the task has grown far more sophisticated and moved beyond any one product to an all-encompassing relationship with the individual user.
Why this change? Because information has become a commodity. Attention is the new unit of value. The former news industry is now competing for the attention of users . . . of citizens . . . to be the most sophisticated "information valet"in their lives. If you save time, provide the best insight, help the user to do their job better or live their life more fully, you get their attention. Again, noting Crosbie Fitch -- the service is a performance. If you perform well, you may be paid, by subscription, by click, or perhaps by advertisers who are pleased you have presented to them the attention of your users.
Gordon Crovitz outlines five approaches that between five and 15 beta testers of Journalism Online are considering will begin experimenting with "in the next month or so" (quoting from Steve Brill, Crovitz' business. Each has merits, and four out of five have been tried, never in an apples-to-apples research environment, which Journalism Online offers. The fifth -- a combination of publishers to provide "all you can read" packages of particular topics -- is novel, at least across the web. That was the idea behind AOL, which failed because it was a "walled garden" whose users ultimately felt trapped.
What we need is an "unwalled garden," in which users are free to choose from an array of service providers, all of whom operate across a common platform, giving access to unique bundles within and outside their particular "unwalled garden." And each unwalled garden needs to be hyper personalized -- to use a phrase coined by Marissa Mayer of Google.
Each of these unwalled gardens may constitute the deep-news focus advocated by Bob Wyman, in his "tip-of-the-iceberg" analogy. He says general news is the tip of an iceberg, which every news producer can match, and which is therefore now a commodity, and not of value. But the hyper personalized, niche content -- the "deep content" which my colleague Martin Langeveld notes is not even available on the web today because nobody can make money on it -- is an untapped source of value to users as part of an overall "information valet" relationship.
In 1997 and earlier,I wrote that newspapers were going to face a train wreck once fat pipes came into the home and people could go anywhere for information. Newspapers, I wrote, would need to learn how to make money referring people to information from anywhere, sharing both users, and content.