Where I Come From, Content Is King (Not A Commodity)

by | Aug 2, 2008

I enjoyed reading Mark Bowden’s piece in The Atlantic on changes being made to The Wall Street Journal under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership.

Bowden makes the point that Rupe lives by the scoop and that he sees news as a commodity, not literature or, God forbid, public service.

This is how Murdoch understands journalism—as content, a word he uses all the time, rather than as a form of literature or public service, and as a commodity whose value largely derives from its instant retail malleability. A short, crisp scoop that dramatically advances a major developing story—Obama’s poll numbers down! Britney back in rehab! Steinbrenner to fire another manager!—can be neatly packaged for a dizzying variety of media: print, radio, TV, the Internet, or even cell-phone screens. It doesn’t matter much to a fully integrated media conglomerate like News Corporation how its customers choose to access this content, as long as the transaction pays. He wants his reporters out in front of every competitor on the planet.

This means that, at a time when every big newspaper is tinkering with futuristic business models, Murdoch is doing so with both feet planted firmly in the past. His strategy for success in 2008 is to behave as though the year is 1908.

I might add that the above argument is about content, not distribution. Rupe, like every other pedaller of content, is investing in the medium of the day, the net. Here Bowden gets worked up.

The Internet is in many ways a superior medium for journalism. It costs virtually nothing, in contrast to multimillion-dollar printing presses, giant rolls of paper and tankers of ink, and fleets of delivery trucks, to say nothing of the thousands of laborers needed to operate the equipment and distribute the product. But while the Web is rapidly destroying the business model that sustained all of the above, it has yet to develop institutions capable of replacing print newspapers as vehicles for great in-depth journalism, or conscious of themselves as upholding a public trust. Instead, the Web gives voice to opinionated, unedited millions. In the digital world, ignorance and crudity share the platform with rigor and taste; the independent journalist shares the platform with spinmeisters and con artists. When all news is spun, we live in a world of propaganda.

The worst part of this is, the public doesn’t seem to care.

Neither does Rupert Murdoch.

I added the emphasis in the above passage, because I have invested years of effort in online content creation. My work is far from institutional, for it’s just me and a few friends doing what we do. Yet, in this chaotic media environment, I see opportunity. Opportunity to go well beyond blogging.

I like the term micro-media for it’s obvious connection to micro-beer. Micro-brewers recognized that the big players in beer treat their beers as a commodities and nothing more, so they chose to make something markedly better and the market responded favorably. Now many micro-brewers are themselves well established entities with national distribution and legions of fans. Essentially, that’s what we’re striving for with sites like HuskerZone and AdPulp. We’re pursuing a different flavor of coverage around niche subjects we care about.

We’re a long ways from an ideal editorial product at this time, but I hope to get there by dedicating to the work. I want to see our micro-media experiments excite people. To some degree they do now, but I want to get to where Sam Adams and New Belgium are. I want our published products to become side-by-side options for consumers. To achieve this, we will need to stop blogging and start breaking news. If we can garner the resources–time and money–we can do it.

The interesting thing is online content creators can learn from the both poles—the scoops and short format favored by Rupe’s papers and the values-based, facts first reporting of papers like The New York Times and Washington Post.