Forget “value-added journalism” — Think, disruptive innovation

The new buzz phrase for entrepreneurial journalism (itself a buzz phrase) is "value-added journalism."

We see it expounded upon in this post by Kevin Anderson. Kevin is a really smart guy who has said nice things about me, but I’m going to disagree with the business proposition of "value-added journalism."

Let me introduce two other terms first:

  • Disruptive innovation — which is innovation that attacks a competitor or competitive landscape by offering a product that is just good enough to find a market, to get a job done for consumers, and is under valued by the competition.  Here’s a video of Clayton Christensen explaining that in terms of the invention of the steam engine and how initially, ship builders didn’t value it, until it was too late.
  • Sustaining innovation is the kind of change brought to a product or service by incumbent companies.  When newspapers started putting classifieds online and charging an up sell fee, that didn’t change the marketplace or fill an unmet need, but added a new level of service for existing customers.  

The idea of "value-add" is fundamentally a "sustaining innovation" mindset.

We see that mind set in this quote, which Kevin provides, from Alan Kohler:

It doesn’t matter whether it’s free or online, to survive it must do more than just report what readers can find out for themselves but don’t have the time.

He says, according to Kevin, that journalism must “explain what events mean, not just report them”.

Actually, there’s a great market, as I’ve found, for reporting events.

In a market where we compete directly with a local newspaper that maybe (being generous) has 7,000 subscribers*, we routinely get 5,000 local readers a day (and well more than 6,000 on a big news day) to our web site.  That’s pretty good, I think, for a three-year-old pull technology to achieve competing against an incumbent 100-year-old push technology.**

We’ve found 90 local advertisers who believe enough in what we’re doing to provide us with sustainable revenue and a chance to continue growing and we’re looking forward to a good and growing 2011.

But I don’t think there is anything "value-added" about what we do.

We’re serving a market that wasn’t served before, and that market is the one that asked the perpetually unanswered question in most markets, "What’s going on in my community right now?"

We don’t always answer it perfectly — we miss stuff some times, we’re late sometimes — but we answer it "good enough" when compared by consumers to the alternatives.

It’s true that some of our success can be attributed to "community engagement," which in Kevin’s post is identified as "value added," and that might be, but what I’ve really found is there is an audience for "get me news of my local community quick and make it easy for me to find what is new since my last visit to your site."

There isn’t a lot of demand to explain it to them.

Our mindset is fundamentally a disruptive innovation approach to news.

While there is a place even in our model for bigger packages, lengthier stories, time-consuming investigations, more in-depth features, it is not foundational to what we do.  It’s important to surprise and delight readers with unexpected quality (or what I hope is quality), but it is not a fundamental business strategy, not now, not on the web.

Journalists who want to go into "entrepreneurial journalism" set themselves up for failure if they’re thinking about "value-added."  To achieve the kind of value-add people like Alan Kohler promote means to add expense, or it means taking time away from doing what I call "quick-hit journalism" — post fast and post often about what’s available now.

The web is fundamentally a disruptive technology. It’s made publishing dirt cheap.  One of the key ingredients that AOL’s Patch has right when it comes to online news publishing is that the expense ratio vs. print is about 4 percent.

To get going with a successful online news start up, all you really need is a scanner, a camera and a copy of Word Press (though, I’d recommend Drupal).  I guarantee you, you will be able to build an audience and build a business.  Start telling people everything you can about what’s going on in their community right now, from why the fire truck just screamed down their street to what’s happening at the American Legion’s chicken BBQ, and you will grow an audience and be able to turn it into cash in your pocket. I promise.

* The competition has a circ, last I heard of 10,500 over three counties. The Batavian covers only one of those three counties, so we bound our competitive market in terms of that one county.

** If you’re not familiar with the terms of "push" vs. "pull," push means, essentially, delivery, where "pull" means the audience has to take the initiative to come to you.

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