Some Thoughts On The News Business

I read two good articles recently which got me thinking about the news business.

The first piece is a Techcrunch interview with Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter, about his new venture Medium. In the interview, Williams talks about his hopes “to shift our daily reading habits away from consuming incremental news bites” and criticises the media industry’s “incessant need to trump up mundane happenings in order to habituate readers into needing news like a daily drug fix.”

The second article by PaidContent is a summary of a presentation given by Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, about the challenges facing the newspaper business. According to the article, Varian points out that newspapers have never really made money from news; that the news business was always cross-subsidized by ads, but that cross-subsidization doesn’t work as well online; and notes that the real challenge for newspapers is to get people to spend more time on their site.

Williams is spot on with the phrase “incremental news bites.” Despite the financial struggles of media outlets, we’re overwhelmed with news. No matter where you turn there’s journalists tweeting headlines the second a press release lands in their inbox; endless updates on news sites, etc. Just to put this into context, Kevin Anderson uses the following statistic – just over a decade ago the Wall Street Journal published 22,000 articles, but in the first six months of 2010 it had already published 21,000 articles. So it’s certainly a case of information overload. Anderson sums up the news business’ challenge in a nutshell – “In the attention economy, journalism competes against everything that competes for people’s time and attention.” Anderson’s full presentation is available below.

So going back to Varian’s point, how do newspapers get people to spend more time on their site? I have two trains of thought on this.

One – Newspapers create a tremendous amount of content per year. Just look at the personal finance section, there’s advice on managing bills, tips on bargains and consumer rights. Yet after an article is published, it’s pretty much forgotten. There isn’t a central resource that a consumer can turn to if they want advice on a specific topic at any given tip similar to a site like It’s madness that newspapers aren’t making better use of the information they’re publishing. Jeff Jarvis expands on this by talking about journalism as a service – “Stories aren’t always the best vehicle for conveying information, for informing the public. Sometimes lists, data bases, photos, maps, wikis, and other new tools can do a better job.”

Two – Give readers a unique experience. One aspect of Lionel Barber’s memo about the changes at the Financial Times that caught my eye was the phrase about shifting further away from reactive news gathering, i.e. as put it “rather than reactive everyone-else-has-it news.” The most obvious example of this from a traditional media perspective is the New York Times Snow Fall feature. Closer to home, UsvsTh3m is a great example of how a traditional media organisation, the Trinity Mirror Group, can provide entertaining content to keep visitors engaged. In a Quartz feature about the site, Malcolm Coles of Trinity Mirror says “the main original use case was ‘I’m bored.’ What can I do for ten minutes?” Some of the games they have developed include Iain Duncan Smith’s Realistic Unemployment Simulator and How Much Are You Hated By The Daily Mail, both of which tick the box in terms of Varian’s argument that newspaper sites to get people to spend more time on their site.

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Piaras Kelly
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