News media has been working hard these past few years to find ways to engage with, and secure the loyal readership of, content consumers and citizens. The results have been mixed, and the experiment continues. One metric that I believe should not be compromised, though, is the actual quality of content. No matter how many bells, whistles, sound loops, or infographics you integrate into an article, there has to also be substance to the subject matter under study. Perhaps I’m wrong, though.

Consider the article from yesterday’s New York Times, “Are You Rich?”: As an interactive resource tool, it is effectively useless fluff. As a way to write a short article, and more intimately and meaningfully contextualize the message of the article, it could have been very compelling, but the authors (it took 3 of them!) of the article went for fluff and aggregation of 3rd party pithy data points over substance, when they could have written something truly resonant. Whether surprisingly or not, it was the comments that increased the value of the article.

“Every pathway has pros and cons, and editors and owners alike are, I sincerely hope, giving serious consideration to the promises and perils inherent in each possibility.”

Are You Rich? This Income-Rank Quiz Might Change How You See Yourself

 

Will journalism be well-thought, well-researched, investigative, and editorial in form, or will short-form clickbait designed to secure eyeballs win out? Will content be published to inform, educate, and empower, or will it be designed to incite swiftly targeted emotional reaction and engagement? Every pathway has pros and cons, and editors and owners alike are, I sincerely hope, giving serious consideration to the promises and perils inherent in each possibility. We, the readership, will be the richer for it, if provided a balanced diet of healthy and well-sourced information. Everyone knows that sugar, caffeine, and clickbait – however addictive – provide no value.

The value of news in the digital age runs in inverse proportion to the amount of time since its release.

If a news item is published at 1:00pm PCT, it has half as much value by 2:00pm, as it did when it was first posted, and only a quarter remaining value by 5:00pm. Obviously, a more accurate measurement of shelf life would take in to consideration the online network on which the news was published, the original posting time (early morning posts tend to get wider reach than early afternoon), and several other factors.

Some media companies, such as the New Yorker and Wired magazine, have recently determined that this is largely because they are giving their news away to 3rd-party providers for free, unreasonably diluting the brand value of their offering. Their solution is to terminate those relationships (as they did earlier this week by removing access to their content from such renowned platforms as Flipboard).

Other media companies are laying off reporters in droves, as they desperately try to save their way to prosperity, under the same “bricks, mortar, and paper” model as ever. talk about lunatics running the asylum…

I think there’s a much simpler solution and, as ever, it all comes down to content.

Consumers don’t place the highest valuation on a distribution channel, platform, or app, but rather upon the content itself. Flipboard may well fail if too many content providers remove access via that platform. The UX is unquestionably appealing, but who cares that the library is pretty, if there’s nothing to read therein? That said, if content providers restrict access to their content too zealously, minimizing consumer ability to share and spread the appeal of that content, they will effectively squander the “early release” value of their content, and vastly diminish its value, by extension.

Before I propose what I consider to be an enormously simple solution, let’s accept and agree upon some basic truths:

  • Good news comes from good reporters. Not (bless ‘em) good printers, nor good truck drivers. Journalists such as Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) and Lisa Napoli (@lisanapoli) are demonstrating that direct connection to their “readers” vastly increases the spread of their content.
  • The Paywall method of news delivery is a clumsy protectionist system that works only in the absence of better paradigms.
  • People will get their news, and entertainment, one way or another. If you stand in their way, they will work around you. If you develop a solution that is a win-win for everyone, they are more than likely going to work with you.

Taking in to account the aforementioned and obvious fact that news has highest value early in its lifecycle, and marrying this with the fact that netizens place high value on content that raises their network visibility, it stands to reason that those wishing to take on the mantle of “influencer” will be prepared to pay for “early access” to compelling media content. If it costs $4.95 to have a big headstart on the rest of the web, when it comes to news and other media, I know many who would gladly pay. The difference between this scenario and the current paywall system is that my solution does not exclude all other netizens from access to the content. After a sufficient time delay, content could be released to the wider public, free of charge. It’s an exercise in transparency and digital openness, with a nod to commercial necessity. If you want to access content in the first hour of its publication, you need to be a subscriber. If you want access within the first 2 hours, you must be either a subscriber, or have access to the link via a subscriber (further elevating the viral power of full subscribers, and cementing their loyalty to your media brand). If you are willing to wait until the end of the day, so be it. The model needs refinement, but the concept is sound.

Take for example Nicholas Kristof’s latest Op-Ed piece, entitled “My Iranian Road Trip”. As is usual with his work, the Twitterverse and Facebook ecosystem have exploded with activity, as this video goes viral, and spreads around the web. The New York Times has a paywall up on their site, so only subscribers can see the video. However, because this is the ONLY option offered, someone has kindly reposted (at least until the NYT reports it!) the video, free-of-charge, on YouTube:

The New York Times gets no love nor revenue out of this scenario. Nicholas Kristof gets his story out. The readership shares the YouTube link, and ignore the NYT site altogether. Were my solution in effect, nobody would likely be compelled to waste their time extracting the video content from the NYT site, and reposting it, knowing it would be freely available in a matter of hours. Instead, they would be focusing on positioning themselves as first line influencers, sharing the NYT site link and thereby their subscriber access with their own network. Subscriptions would rise, content “piracy” would be mitigated, brand value would be strengthened, and the value of viral media would be elevated in a manner consistent with both the ideals of an increasingly transparent society, and the realistic needs of any business. My scenario recognizes the need to shift from a “control” mentality to a “collaborate” one, recognizing that the core value is highest at point of publication and readership (journalist and consumer), and everything in between is either conduit or obstacle.

I’ve been invited to a private event at the Los Angeles Times building tonight, hosted by Muck Rack (@Muckrack) and the LA Times. It’s been labeled as “a casual cocktail event for a few select journalists, PRs and news junkies to talk about journalism in the age of social media”. I’m eager to see what this constituency makes of my “crazy idea”…

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Robert H. Heath returns with some interesting observations on the new(s) cycle of information, and how traditional media outlets are demonstrating an ironic capacity for error:

More than a week has passed since the release of the “Report of the Examiner in the Chapter 11 proceedings of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc” so naturally coverage of the report is moving beyond reaction to reflection.

[…]

This post offers my thoughts on the “reporting of the report” and the changing media landscape.

It remains popular within the mainstream media to dismiss the blogging community as mostly commentators rather than reporters. What’s more, according to the MSM types, most of the fodder for the blogosphere’s ruminations comes from reporting in the mainstream media.

The clear implication is that without the mainstream media to painstakingly investigate, write, edit and publish the news in the first place, the blogosphere would be reduced to self-indulgent opinionating and bloviating, like, for example the content you’d expect to find on MySpace.

Even worse, according to the extreme form of the argument, the lack of professional standards and good editing in the blogosphere can lead to reckless “reporting” with potentially costly consequences.

So I was puzzled last weekend when the NYT’s editorial page asserted that Lehman Brothers, in the last quarters prior to its September 2008 bankruptcy filing, engaged in repo transactions that removed “troubled assets” from its balance sheet.

My surprise arose not from Lehman’s conduct (although the Times professed to being “dumbstruck” and “blindsided”) but from the fact that I quite specifically recalled the report, right on page 796 saying:

…the vast majority of securities Lehman utilized in Repo 105 transactions were investment grade, with all but a few of the securities falling within the A to AAA range.

Curious how the Times editors were so perfectly misled on this point, I went back to the paper’s original story on the Lehman report, only to find the following correction.

Correction: March 13, 2010

An article on Friday about an examiner’s report detailing accounting maneuvers used by Lehman Brothers to conceal its perilous finances described incorrectly in some editions the assets that were temporarily shuffled off its books. They were mostly high-quality securities that could be easily accepted by other banks, according to the examiner’s report; they were not “troubled” and “mostly illiquid real estate holdings…”

So here we have a Times story, written under deadline, that gets a key fact exactly wrong, followed by a correction. Okay, stuff happens. But what must be especially embarassing to the Times is that the newsroom appears to have noticed and corrected its error before the editorial page went to bed with the wrong fact 24 hours later… kinda like a blogger spouting off his opinion about something he read online, without checking the veracity of the story.

Even worse, a full week later the New York Post, which apparently gets its facts from old copies of the Times, publishes this:

Among Valukas’ findings is that Lehman used an esoteric accounting practice known as ‘Repo 105,’ which allowed the firm to move toxic mortgage assets off its books in order to make it seem healthier.

Don’t these guys have time to read the financial blogs?

When it comes to reporting complex subjects, the mainstream media’s conventions may leave it competitively disadvantaged versus the blogosphere. The “inverted pyramid” approach to a traditional news article gives short shrift to second- and third-level details (which may be summarily discarded if the ‘news hole’ is too small).

The desire to present both sides of the story “objectively” requires time-consuming phone and email contacts for “On the one hand… on the other hand…” quotes from expert sources who may possess less knowledge about fast-breaking news than the reporter himself. And for print journalists, the need for a “static” version of a story to meet the circadian publishing cycle creates constraints that a living story on a blog doesn’t face.

Michael Kinsley has written and Kara Swisher has spoken (a little past the 10:00 minute mark) far more eloquently about this issue, so I’ll refer you to them.

Not so long ago, a “Report of the Examiner in the Chapter 11 proceedings of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc” would have been released in a small press conference in New York City, where a smattering of lawyers and business journalists would lug their 2200-page copies back to the office to research potential lawsuits or the news angle. But the public at large would not have had convenient access to the source materials until they arrived at the local library, if at all. So journalists of yesteryear enjoyed quasi-monopolistic access to much of the source material for the important stories of the day.

A recent Pew Research Center study of news dissemination in Baltimore found that 63% of news stories originated with government entities. News organizations originated 14% and the remainder were largely from interest groups. This suggests that 86% of the “news” is originated (that is to say, “published”) by government and private non-journalistic organizations. Increasingly, these stories are being published online, where they’re immediately available to all interested readers. And for a story of any complexity, the party most qualified to comment may be some guy (a former Lehman repo trader, perhaps) posting in his pajamas from his basement office.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a reward, so I’ll give the last word on the subject to the writing team on NBC’s hit comedy,”30 Rock,” who nail the topic with the brutally efficient satire. Currently available on Hulu (4:30 into the show).

In the scene, Avery Jessup a fictional, on-air reporter for CNBC (played by the adorable Elizabeth Banks) calls her lover, Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) a senior executive at NBC, about a rumored takeover of NBC.

Phone rings in Donaghy’s office.

Jack Donaghy: “Hello?”

Avery Jessup: “Answering your own phone on the first ring… All hands on deck over there, huh?”

Jack Donaghy: “Whaddya mean?”

Avery Jessup: “C’mon the NBC buyout… what’s happening today?”

Jack Donaghy: (Increduously) “I’m sorry… you’re calling me as a source? How are you going to explain your unnamed executive to your producer.”

Avery Jessup: “I’ll tell him it’s a guy I’m having sex with. It’s a 24-hour news cycle here, Jack. We really don’t have time to do right any more.”