“Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,” [Bharat] told me. “Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing. … I believe the news industry is finding that it will not be able to sustain producing highly similar articles.”
During my undergrad journalism studies at Marist, then-professor David McCraw assigned us Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus — a chronicle of the 1972 presidential election from the view of the reporters covering it. Aside from coming away thinking that R.W. Apple was quite the character, the book introduced me to pack journalism — the tendency for news media to follow one another to the point where they all say mostly the same thing.
It’s this tendency that Bharat — in a world where search engines reveal and aggregate everything written on a topic — finds unsustainable. I agree. It seems to me that:
- Unique content is a journalism organization’s most valuable currency.
- Width, depth and quality on a topic builds uniqueness.
- Uniqueness breeds reader loyalty.
- No one will pay you for something they can get free elsewhere.
- Trying to match “the pack” on stories that wire services and others already have covered pulls you away from achieving bullets 1 and 2. So, either find something unique to say or don’t bother.
These hold true whether you’re a blogger or a worldwide brand, whether you’re doing stories, photos, news apps, graphics or databases. Why? Because, as Fallows’ story says, the assumption being made by Google (which seems to be smart) is that people actually are willing to pay for news. But not just anything:
… People inside the press still wage bitter, first-principles debates about whether, in theory, customers will ever be willing to pay for online news, and therefore whether “paywalls” for online news can ever succeed. But at Google, I could hardly interest anyone in the question. The reaction was: Of course people will end up paying in some form—why even talk about it? … The deeper differences [between news orgs and Google] involve Google’s assumptions about what the news business will have to do to “engage” readers again—that is, make them willing to spend time with its printed, online, or on-air products, however much they cost.
If this is true, and I suspect it is, news organizations need to answer a basic question:
What do we have that readers can’t get anywhere else?