Here is a little known fact: the product of the newspaper was never the news. Most of the stuff we regard as news has little impact on people’s day to day lives and rarely possesses an economic role as information: that is, being information that actually changes people’s decisions. To be sure, there is news that performs this function — say, of changes in the weather — but this has not been provided by the newspaper for some time. It is too late for that. Radio, television, and now the Internet provide those things.
Now it is tempting to then consider news provided by newspapers as a form of entertainment. And we know where that leads — to a consideration of content that people actually find entertaining. And we know what that is unlikely to be: the long-form investigative journalism that typifies the self-image of the professional journalist. So when newspaper operators think about it and try to maximise “the revenue from their content” (as was discussed by Fairfax executives today) they fly towards the entertaining. It is exemplified by the tabloid but that is really just an image problem.
But there is another function that newspapers performed and that has been eroded because few recognised it. “Fixity also plays a critical part in the power of the newspaper. A sense of community arises from reading the same text,” wrote John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in 1999. In their mind, the newspaper was the only means by which that community could arise and, therefore, doubted it could be tailored to readers who picked to chose what they wanted to read.
For this reason, the personalized newspaper does not function in the same way as a conventional newspaper. It does not bind people together. You cannot ask someone “Did you read this story about x?” if your paper was created personally for you. Indeed, a world of personalized entertainment and news may make it hard to find common ground.
The 2011 world is a world of personalized entertainment. The overwhelming majority of readers the most talked about pieces in newspapers are not subscribers. So while a conventional newspaper that everyone subscribed to can create communal consumption, the ability to share and point to articles that no one subscribes to can achieve precisely the same “common ground.”
The digital world forces us to see what things are at their essence. That is precisely what Seely Brown and Duguid tried to do. They argued that, at its essence, the value of news arose from its creation of community and common ground. In setting the scene they wrote about the emergence of news media in the US:
The blizzard of newspapers, pamphlets, journals, and tracts allowed each reader to feel that what he or she was doing, thousands and possibly tens of thousands of others with the same interests were doing at the same time. “Nothing but a newspaper,” the great French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1983, “can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment.” “They maintain civilization,” he went on. “If there were no newspapers, there would be no common activity.”
That part is convincing. But then they drew an inference: personalised provision of content would fail because it would remove that common ground. That part proved to be false. Why? Because they left out the individual. They saw traditional news sources as providing information in a unidirectional outward flow and forgot that individuals value and have an incentive to create that common ground. When sharing is possible and content is accessible, individuals can be empowered to do just that. News cannot get more personalised than that.
The newspaper owners of today suffer from the misconception that they are still a unique platform for communities because they are blinded by a “content is king” mentality. That is why they do not fear putting up paywalls — even metered ones. They believe that people will pay for community. But in an era of strong competition, the community has moved. The community arises in the package and platforms that making sharing the news easy.
In the past, the newspaper used to be the glue that united people in daily conversation (e.g., around the water cooler). Today that has been replaced by email links, Twitter posts and, of course, Facebook. Those are the platforms that ask “did you read about x?” and those are the platforms we visit to ensure we are not left out of the conversation. Put simply, when the paywalls rise, there is no social risk to the reader from not climbing them.
What we are seeing from Fairfax today is the consequences of large scale unbundling of the news media industry where community platforms are separated from the content they share. Will its flight to digital save it? No, not in its current or new form. It is one last bet on the notion that people will agree to a Fairfax filter for what interests them rather than one of the myriad of other filters available in the world. A few years ago, The Age dropped off my morning browser tab run in favour of the ABC News page. Why? Because that page was laid out to push me to the local content I wanted without pretending to be a source for global news. Long before that the AFR became uninteresting when I could get everything I wanted from the free Business Spectator. Entrepreneurial ventures will come by and convince the best journalists to take the plunge and move outside of the Fairfax filter process and engage directly with customers. They will shed overhead, assets and the high pay of media mogul execs and find that they can do just fine without them.