Sunday, February 22, 2009

Walter Isaacson does journalism a grave disservice

Earlier this month, former Time CEO and current head of the Aspen Institute Walter Isaacson wrote a long piece in Time, called “How to Save Your Newspaper.” His argument was simple: Newspapers must start charging for their online content. The piece set off a tizzy in the journalism blogosphere, with bloggers and readers chiming in left and right about whether news organizations should, in fact, make readers pay. Charlie Rose even hosted an entire show on the future of journalism, with Isaacson as one of the guests.

The problem is: They've been talking about the wrong thing.

All the energy put into debating whether news organizations should charge for online content was wasted effort. You can’t talk about whether you should charge users of your product until you’ve created a product that a consumer would even consider paying for. The major problem in journalism today is not that news organizations haven’t figured out how to run their businesses off online ad revenue. The major problem in journalism today is that news organizations have not stopped to revamp the product they offer.

Sure, many news organizations have “added on.” They’ve added blogs. They’ve added slideshows. They’ve added video. But they haven’t revamped the core product. For the most part, they’ve simply put online the type of “product” they used to place in their print editions. Is City Hall doing something of note? Fine, write a 10-inch inverted pyramid story. But that’s not a product people want in the online world. In order to have anything to charge for, newspapers need to go back to the drawing board and rethink their “offering.”*

This idea hasn’t occurred to news organizations because they’ve simply assumed that all they need to do to “go digital” was to put online what they used to place in print. Problem is: readers (“users”) have different expectations of what online should provide them than what they expected from print. The same way that users expect far more functionality from a cell phone today than they ever expected from a landline. Landlines at most could store a few numbers and display the number of an incoming caller. But there’s no way a cell phone customer today would ever buy a cell phone that did nothing more than store a handful of numbers and display the number of an incoming caller. Cell phone users expect far more than that, and cell phones must deliver, or get out of the business.

Here’s an example of that means for print. A little while back, the city of San Francisco announced that, from March to November, it was going to do an inspection of all sidewalks in the city and issue repair notices where broken sidewalks need to be replaced. This was significant. Every property owner is responsible for the sidewalk in front of their buildings. Thousands of property owners—homeowners and businesses alike—would likely be affected by the notices. And given the cost of replacing sidewalks, that was going to mean at least several thousands of dollars out of pocket per property owner.

I learned about this online, from a San Francisco newspaper. As you might expect, all they did was post a 10-inch (probably more like seven) inverted pyramid story about it. Which is what you would produce if you were putting the story in print. But that’s the wrong way to go about it online. The news organization could have created a much more valuable offering. But they didn’t, probably because it never occurred to them they should rethink how to deliver this story online vs. how they would have done it in print.

So let’s do that now. Pretend, for starters, that you had never grown up in the print world, that you had grown up in the digital world. Now ask yourself, as a “digital native”: How would you do a story online about the city’s plans to perform sidewalk inspections?

  • Would you, perhaps, include an interactive map, showing which streets the city was going to be inspecting when?

    Presumably the city had a schedule of where their inspectors were going to be when. Why wouldn’t you, as a service to your readers, post a map where homeowners could click their streets and find out when the inspectors would be there? That way they would know whether they needed to start gathering their money now or whether they had a few months before their notice would come.

  • Would you include a calculator, to help homeowners calculate how much replacing their sidewalk was going to cost?

    Sidewalks in San Francisco are made up of squares. Contractors generally tabulate the cost of a job by multiplying the number of squares to be replaced by a standard price-per-square. An online calculator would allow readers to plug in the number of broken squares outside their homes and have it spit out a ballpark figure for how much the job would cost.
These are just a few, tiny, tiny examples of how news organizations might offer a product online that readers would find truly valuable—one that, if all the news were built this way—readers might indeed think was worth laying down a few pennies for.

So this is the point: The news business does not have a future online unless it rethinks how it does news online. You can talk about making people pay, but until you’ve created something people might be willing to pay for, such discussions are a waste of time.

Which is why Walter Isaacson—and others who think and advocate like him—are doing journalism a grave disservice. The more time we collectively spend talking about whether readers should pay for journalism before we’ve created something that they’d want to pay for, the more energy we’re wasting and the longer it’s going to take to find the future of journalism.

* “Offering” is a term used in the business world to describe the thing you’re putting out in the world that you want people to pay for. A Happy Meal is an offering. An oil change is an offering. A 5-day cruise with buffets included but drinks extra is an offering. Businesses spend a lot of time figuring out what should be in their offering in order to create something that people want (in order to maximize number of customers) and will pay for (in order to, at a minimum, break even or, better, make a healthy profit).

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