Friday, July 11, 2008

The demand is not plummeting; it was never there

Howell Raines' mildly interesting piece on Jim Romenesko in the current issue of Portfolio is probably not worth the 15 minutes it takes to read it, but it does have a couple of nuggets worth reflecting on. I bring them to you here.

The first is Raines' observation that "it's not technology per se that's killing newspapers; it's plummeting demand for quality information."

I would propose that the demand for quality information is not plummeting. Rather, that it never was there to begin with. Technology has made it possible for readers to go elsewhere for the things they actually were seeking in newspapers. That is the phenomenon that is being revealed here.

We don't really believe that readers bought newspapers because they wanted the latest news from city hall, do we? If we're honest with ourselves, we'd admit that readers bought newspapers for the sports scores, the stock quotes, the TV and movie listings, maybe even the comics. The news? No. The news was simply a freebie thrown in with the other stuff customers were actually buying.

Readers were also buying newspapers--and reading the news--for other reasons that had nothing to do with the content itself, nothing to do with any desire to consume "quality information. Reasons like:

-- The desire to feel connected to the community

-- The desire to feel on top of what's going on in the community

-- The desire not to look stupid at the next cocktail party

In the design world, we call these "affective" attributes, the word "affect" being a stand-in for "emotional." Affective attributes are those that generate specific emotions or feelings in a person using a product. Not everyone who bought an iPhone did so because they thought it was the most useful and beautiful cell phone out there. Some bought it because they wanted to look cool, hip, down with the latest. Some bought it because they wanted to feel like they were on the cutting edge. Some bought it because they were afraid of missing out on something special.

Many purchase decisions are driven by these kinds of factors, rather than the practical value of the object in question. Exhibit A: Killer muscle cars that don't actually run all that well. The "quality" in the information? That's like the medicine in the cough syrup. No child who ever agreed to slurp down cough syrup did it for the medicine. They did it for the cherry flavor.

This might sound depressing, but it should be encouraging. Because it offers the key to the solution: Figure out what your readers really want from you--whether it's the sports scores or the desire to feel connected, or both, probably--and then figure out how to deliver the news so that the reader gets those things they're actually looking for.

And accept that there never was, and probably never will be, any meaningful demand for quality information. Except among a tiny minority of news junkies, and those of us in the business. Sure, when something like the domestic wire-tapping story or the Walter Reed scandal come to light, people are interested. But on a day-to-day basis? Really, they're more interested in the sports scores. And the stock quotes.

Photo courtesy of Yogi. Creative Commons license.

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