Philip Meyer, author of the Vanishing Newspaper, is at it again, making a compelling point for the role of investigative journalism and original research in newspapers’ survival:
One of the rules of thumb for coping with substitute technology is to narrow your focus to the area that is the least vulnerable to substitution. Michael Porter included it in his list of six strategies in his book “Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance.” The railroads survived the threat from trucks on Interstate highways and airlines by focusing on the one thing they could still do better: moving bulk cargo across long distances.
What service supplied by newspapers is the least vulnerable?
I still believe that a newspaper’s most important product, the product least vulnerable to substitution, is community influence. It gains this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news, analysis and investigative reporting about public affairs. This influence makes it more attractive to advertisers.
By news, I don’t mean stenographic coverage of public meetings, channeling press releases or listing unanalyzed collections of facts. The old hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient. Now that information is so plentiful, we don’t need new information so much as help in processing what’s already available. Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it.
The raw material for this processing is evidence-based journalism, something that bloggers are not good at originating.
Not all readers demand such quality, but the educated, opinion-leading, news-junkie core of the audience always will. They will insist on it as a defense against “persuasive communication,” the euphemism for advertising, public relations and spin that exploits the confusion of information overload. Readers need and want to be equipped with truth-based defenses.
Newspapers might have a chance if they can meet that need by holding on to the kind of content that gives them their natural community influence. To keep the resources for doing that, they will have to jettison the frivolous items in the content buffet.
I think that community influence is completely substitutable. Isn't it just the money? What can't be readily substituted is deep pockets. An example in Australia would be Freedom of Information. Only an organisation able to wield a lawyer or that can pay, can ultimately force the release of documents from the government if they make it difficult. It is the money required for investigative journalism that makes a lot of the difference between an amateur blogger and a newspaper in my opinion.
Great point. There's a certain arrogance to thinking 'we have the influence' and therefore 'we'll always have the influence'. Empires rise and fall. But as you say, having the pockets to force the release of documents/fight lawyers is what's ultimately behind that. Readers have for years yearned for the press to use their power on their behalf, but it hasn't happened often enough.
I'm glad you say that, because that will be my point when i speak on Future of Journalism event over here soon.
Looking forward to it, hope we can meet.
Since I'm a comedian and satirical blogger, not a journo I'm leaning on your blog heavily as a research tool, since I may have to speak on citizen journalism. I did originally start my blog specifically to slag off one of our most prominent journalists in Western Australia though.
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