What if we in media are not in the content business?
Oh, yes, we will produce content; that’s what we do. But perhaps our greatest value is not in what we produce but in what it produces: signals about people’s interests, about authority, about topics and trends.
That is how Facebook, Google, Twitter and company see content –- as a signal generator. That is how they extract value from it, by using those signals to serve more relevant content, services, and advertising. But they are not in the content business. They are in the relationship business. Shouldn’t we also be?
A US TV news executive I know complained to me recently that Facebook and Google, in his words, use media’s steel to build their cars. “Mark Zuckerberg,” he said, “does not value content.”
No, I said, Zuckerberg values more content than we do. We think content is that which we make because we are content people –- we see content as a scarcity we produce and control. Facebook and Google, on the other hand, see content everywhere –- in the allegedly useless creations, chatter and links made by people in the course of their lives. They see content as an abundant resource to learn from, value and exploit.
The problem is, the media is not built for relationships because our industry was born in a time of factories, not services. We rarely know who our readers are (and we still call them just readers or at best commenters, not creators or collaborators). We do not have the means to gather, analyze and act on data about their activities and interests at an individual level. Thus we cannot serve them as individuals.
Our product, content, is not built for that. It is built for masses. That is what our means of production and distribution demanded. So now we try to adapt that content for new tools, impressed that we can add motion, sound or touch to what we have long done. But our online books, magazines, and newspapers are still recognizable as such. We haven’t gone nearly far enough yet to rethink and reinvent them.
We should instead start with the fundamental questions: Where does our value reside? What need do we fulfill and what problem do we solve? What business are we really in? How do we serve our communities? And how do we sustain the enterprise?
I suggest we begin by looking at ourselves as platforms for those communities to organize what they know and then we can also provide what they need to know. Then we would use tools that enable people to share. Of course, those tools already exist: Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr.
Through them flows a tremendous amount of information. We are learning how to add value to that flow: discerning topics, finding witnesses and authorities, highlighting quality, confirming and debunking facts, adding context, organizing.
Of course, there is much that is not in that flow. That is when we add our real value: reporting, asking the questions that aren’t being asked and answered. That remains our highest value. But on the whole, I believe that to do our jobs well, we will become more enablers than producers.
Now the real question: What the hell is the business model? Where is the revenue? The profit? I believe the answer starts not with replicating old revenue streams but with finding new efficiencies. Production is expensive. Sharing is inexpensive and it scales. Facebook will soon serve a billion people with a staff equivalent to that of a large newspaper.
Next, we will emphasize unique value: the skills of journalism; the advantages of being local or serving finite communities; the benefits of authority and brand.
Next, the better our relationship with people in our communities –- the more we know about them, using our own content as signal generators -– the better we can serve them and the more opportunities we will have to find value in that, through advertising but also through commerce and services, and even education and events.
Finally, we will learn how to serve merchants’ business needs and not just sell them scarce space in our publications, online or off. I’ve begun interviewing local businesses to understand what all they should be doing with their Google Places pages and Facebook offers and Yelp reviews. Locally, I believe there is opportunity to be had in serving them as digital agencies – if we can find how to sell and serve at scale.
Vague? Unproven? Risky? Yes, yes, and yes. But we now can be certain that maintaining old models and assumptions is riskier. So we must experiment and invest in innovation to learn what business we are really in.