British journalist Charles Arthur's post "Newspapers: why fungibility means they’re really really really really really REALLY screwed" shines a light on a basic disconnect between reality and the center of gravity in American journalism.
Well, two disconnects.
One is that mentioning "fungibility" sends about half of American journalists scurrying to look it up in a dictionary or perhaps on Google. Hey, if you're going to be a writer you should know and understand words like fungibility, granularity, and my personal pet peeve, taxonomy.
But the bigger disconnect is a deep-seated belief that news is not a fungible commodity.
And that belief becomes even more deeply rooted as newspapers refocus on local coverage, dropping content that is obviously available everywhere on the Internet.
"Our content," many say, "is unique and not available anywhere else on the Internet."
While that may be true from the content provider's viewpoint, it misses a larger issue: What value do consumers get from your news? Can they get it elsewhere?
Why do people consume news, anyway? There are a lot of reasons, and while "I want to be well-informed on matters of civic importance in my community" may be an important one for some people, it's really not a major driver of news consumption in the big picture.
Consider some others, in no particular order:
- Reading the news is a pleasant and entertaining activity.
- It gives me something to talk about at lunch with my coworkers.
- While reading the paper, I discover what's on sale at my local stores.
- Sometimes I see stuff about people I know.
- I want to feel like I'm part of a community.
When you begin to look at it through the eyes of a consumer, you discover there are ways of obtaining that value other than by reading your local newspaper, print or online.
This is the real challenge facing newspapers: You're not competing on the basis of whether you have unique news. You're competing with the entire world on the basis of the value that consumers get out of your product.
Pleasant and entertaining activities? They abound. Something to talk about? It's everywhere. Discovering what's on sale at local stores? Besides radio and several dozen cable channels, there's also the big box store's website, where their whole weekly sales circular is reproduced online.
People I know? Facebook. Feel like a part of a community? Ditto.
I'm not saying there's no market for what newspapers do. What I'm saying is that the breadth and scale of competition is far greater than most journalists imagine. For most of the points of consumer value that you might name for "news," there are alternative sources. And that gets us back to fungibility.
The problem of fungible commodities is that open markets relentlessly drive prices down toward the cost of production.
You want profit margins? Look for scarcity.
Where can scarcity be found? Here's one hint: Time. Your ability to compete may turn out to depend on your ability to arrange, organize and prioritize on behalf of every individual user. Do you know of any websites that do a good job of that?