Perhaps the most pressing question in modern journalism is that of the role of the traditional media. You see this playing across the spectrum of media. I wrote a few weeks ago about the spectrum of the media- starting on the left with the tiniest of tweets, and working through a the spectrum to the right, where you see larger scale works of research like novels or scholarly research. Each band of color on our spectrum naturally wants to try to absorb elements to it’s left. But if all these outlets are doing is re-packaging content available elsewhere, what value do they actually ad? The answer is far more important than Nielson ratings or Circulation Numbers… it is reputation. This is a value that is personal and quantifiable. And each day, the traditional media is spending its reputation, while individuals are earning theirs.
The blogosphere and the twitter-sphere and now even the realm of G+ all act as a sort of front line, breaking news bits. And you better believe that the mainstream is watching the activity happening in the trenches like a hawk. Their columnists routinely grab on to the happening of the moment, and re-package it it for a more mainstream, and generally far larger audience.
At one point I looked at this like proof that the industry was slowly killing itself. Why would I pay to have a kid in a baseball cap drop a piece of newsprint off on my doorstep every afternoon to get what I could have freely had 12-18 hours earlier in my RSS reader. And have you actually watched CNN lately? They have large segments where they basically are reading tweets: at least this mechanism eliminates the lag of print, but it also trivializes the real value of the giant megaphone. But once you remove the distribution channel from the equation, it’s easier to see the real value of the traditional media.
The mainstream has something far more valuable than audience or scale, they have a reputation. Face it: Fox News is well known. So is the Wall Street Journal. Or the Washington Post. Or The Times. You know these systems because they have a reputation beyond the words on their pages. And when you see a headline proclaiming an event, you assign a value to that story based on the source.
If you saw the news that Mark Zuckerberg was Black Belt and likes to punch interns wearing sumo suits on CmdrTaco.net, you would laugh and assume that is was a joke. Also, I bet we could charge admission! But if you saw it on The New York Times, you’d be damn likely to believe it. (Note: I have no clue if Zuck knows karate, or has a sumo suit boxing fetish. Pretty much everything I know about the guy comes from grainy internet videos of keynote presentations and Aaron Sorkin dialog. If he does know karate, I would politely request that he not karate chop me… but I’m unemployed and maybe karate chop sumo intern at Facebook pays good)
You earn reputation. You earn it with history: we respect the classic old newspapers because they are older than you. You earn it with circulation: a million readers means something. There’s a bit of a warm sense of certainty of being in the middle of a herd, but the larger the user base, the more significant the shared experience adds to the value of the publication. But mostly, you earn it by day after day, week after week, doing a good job. Writing the words. Publishing the facts. And sustaining that quality forever.
Many internet sites have earned reputation… perhaps not the same as The Times- Wikipedia says that the paper is 160 years old. But since Wikipedia is only 10 years old, what does that whipper snapper know? In internet years, we have a little bit more narrow grasp of reputation… The 10 years of Wikipedia is pretty dang old. Slashdot is a 14 year old grandpa at this point. And Great Grandpa Yahoo has alzheimers. It got so old and bloated that it’s reputation dissolved.
Now what does this mean for the modern publications? It means that their reputation is everything. Their only thing. You don’t pay for the vast majority of information you consume each day, and therefore your loyalty to any particular publication is thin. Deleting a bookmark. Removing a publication from your Facebook Friends list. Dropping an RSS feed from your reader, it’s all a trivial operation. When you pay $100 a year to have a a hunk of printed parchment thrown on your driveway, you rationalize that it was money well spent. Besides, the actual act of calling a phone number to cancel a newspaper? My wife went through this a few months ago and it was a serious hassle.
But loyalty now doesn’t weigh what it used to. And the internet is filled with a million blogs with virtually no reputation. They are all clawing at each other’s throats to try to get a slightly larger slice of the AdSense pie. Some do so with petty theft. Some do so with deep through. And some get by mostly on a reputation earned years ago by other people’s hard work.
Can reputation be quantified? In academia, you can count the cites of a particular piece of research. Google’s PageRank is doing the same thing. And you do this too, although perhaps a bit more subconsciously. You trust one website. You’re bored of another.
Each element of news is a small game of paper rock scissors, or maybe it’s better to think in terms of stocks: sell, buy or hold. Every time you buy in to a story, the value of the publication rises to you. But if the information is bad… if scandal arises… if a UI design cuts the usefulness, the value falls. A friend (who also has reputation) makes a recommendation to you, which bestows value as well.
The 100+ year old print publications are reputation billionaires, but they seem to be spending it faster than they can make it. The decades old cable news organizations are living day to day, barely able to earn enough reputation to survive because they spend it so ludicrously. And every unknown blog or twitter account is an empty reputation bucket waiting to be filled simply by earning it. One story at a time. Day after day. Week after week.
But until the tools are able to keep up with the volume of quantity, good stuff will languish in obscurity while you read another Huffington post headline.