Journalists doing their jobs better is a competitive advantage

In a piece about data portability, John Battelle shifts into a discussion about the difference between a business that competes on price vs. a business that competes on service. He says:

An example. My local market charges far more for a good bottle of wine than many shops that are nearby. But there’s a wine guy who works at that market who knows wine cold, and who I trust. Also, the market is close to my home, and I have a personal relationship with the fellow (OK, here’s the reference to the book I’m working on – I have a “conversation” going with this merchant). Those factors, combined with a certain ambiance at the store that I really like, all lead to one result: I buy my wine at the more expensive store. Why? Because the store competes on more than price.

Ironically, I just found a booze store near my house that not only has great prices, but also great service — an owner who knows his booze (not just wine) cold. But that’s beside the point.

Battelle is absolutely right. He’s talking about differentiation. He’s talking about competitive advantage.

The newspaper industry is awash in talk about disruption and innovation. I do it, too. It’s important. We’ve had API do NewspaperNext. But there’s more to saving this industry than coming up with new ideas. I want to know when API is going to do NewspaperBetter.

All of the evidence suggest that ever since the Woodstein era began, readership and circulation have been in decline. Now, there are lots of reasons for that (subject of a future post), but there’s also little doubt that there is something about American newspaper journalism since the 1970s that is turning people off.

We’re not even winning the content battle on the web, so it isn’t just about delivery, convenience or changing lifestyles. It’s also about something that we’re doing or not doing.

Through all of the debates we’ve had about video, there is a “quality crowd” that seems to think the only thing I care about is slapping up a bunch of crappy videos just to make video.

That totally misses the point.

The point is about reinventing newspaper journalism, and I believe video is going to be a big part of newspaper journalism from here on out, and reinvention is all about doing it better.

The quality crowd doesn’t seem to understand, or doesn’t seem to care, that quality isn’t about the camera you carry, the software you use or how much time you spend in an editing bay (if you’re using an editing bay, by the way, you’re in overkill mode). Quality is about the skill, knowledge, experience, understanding, talent and intuition that helps you get bits of interesting stuff — the stuff people really care about, want to read about, or want to see and hear.

It’s the content, not the presentation, that matters most.

Again, I point you to Ira Glass on getting good.

Getting good at any creative endeavor is hard work. It takes time. I don’t care how smart you are, it takes time. Getting good isn’t about equipment. It’s about heart and soul.

So the best thing to do to get good is to do it. Get started. Explore and discover and feel free to fail. You must make yourself create things and not be afraid of some of the crap you will create along the way.

That’s also what my posts encouraging journalists to dive deep into the online social life and conversation are all about.

To be a great modern journalist, you MUST be a wired journalist. You must GET online. That doesn’t mean you just know how to do a Google search, read a few blogs and send a few e-mails. It means you get the culture, the attitudes and the expectations of the online crowd.

Until you do it, you’ll never understand that there is a difference. That’s why I don’t take very seriously the critics who say this call to action is a lot of bunk. They haven’t done it. They don’t know what they’re talking about, or what we’re talking about.

During one of the football games I watched last week, the announcer referred to an interview he did that week with a first-year NFL coach. When asked what was different about the NFL than he expected, the coach said that what he expected to find in the NFL was a group of professional football players, and he was shocked to find just how few professionals there were in the league. Very few players in the NFL, he said, are professionals. They don’t go about their jobs and their routines the way a professional would.

I submit that if you’re a professional journalist, you’ve already done most of what I put in my suggested MBO plan. And if you don’t think you need to do those things, than I question whether you’re really a professional.

It is time for newspaper journalists to set up and start creating the competitive advantage that will help us win. Current newspaper journalism is pretty much a commodity. When what you produce becomes a commodity, you can no longer win on price (and some journalists think we should be charging a fee for what people are already telling us doesn’t much interest them). You can only win on a competitive advantage. For journalists that should be doing a better job of story selection, presentation and interaction with the people in their communities.

If you don’t believe me, go read Mindy McAdams. She’s got it exactly right. I wish I had written that post. It could be the primer for an API NewspaperBetter project.

10 thoughts on “Journalists doing their jobs better is a competitive advantage

  1. It’s the content, not the presentation, that matters most.

    You see, we DO agree on things! My fear — and why you may have pegged me in the “quality crowd” — is that papers will hand their reporters a cheap digital camera, say “go shoot something for the web” and stop there.

    When I preach “quality” I’m talking exactly the quality inherent in: It’s the content, not the presentation, that matters most.

    Good Lord, by all means, “explore and discover and feel free to fail.” But the time is long past for this to be your paper’s entire web strategy.

  2. I’d rather have papers handing out camers and saying “go shoot something” than not handing them out at all.

    At some point, it’s the reporter’s responsibilty to learn how to use that tool and not the paper’s.

    If a publisher has handed you a camera — don’t bitch about no training … train yourself.

    Of course, camera and training together is always better.

  3. Good God! As a professional journalist, you are expected to have gone to college. The one thing that a college education SHOULD have taught you is how to teach yourself something.

    Most professionals in other industries know that they are expected to keep up with the times. That means keeping their skills current. If new software comes out, new equipment or new techniques – they are expected to learn them.

    Yes it is great when the company foots the bill or arranges for the time to improve your skills. But as a professional, you should be keeping up your skills yourself. Don’t wait for them to do it.

  4. Howard,
    You are right on with this concept. I have several friends that work in newspapers and television and they are more concerned about the “quality” of their product with very little consideration about the content. The reason why online is overtaking mainstream media is because people are looking for the “real information” that is being missed in MSM. Look at how many news items are created by Press Releases or because someone “fed” a journalist a story. How many journalists have the expertise to independently verify these stories and uncover the real facts? In my experience, very few. Most are satisfied with taking the generally accepted consensus as fact and throwing in some disclaimers that identify the source and they are done. However, the public is hungry for experts that know the real situation and can cut through the clutter and deliver the truth of a situation. The public is also tired of MSM’s model of using the most extreme perspective of an issue to generate headlines, viewers or pageviews. “If it bleeds, it leads” has damaged MSM’s news credibility. Lastly, when discussing complex issues, journalists dumb it down either because they devalue their audience or because they don’t have the firepower (or time) to truly understand the issue themselves.
    Let the real experts in society step-up and explain the issues. Journalists need to get out of the way. It’s clear that the audience doesn’t value their packaging, editing or lack of information value-add. It might be that journalism is getting disintermediated by online information.
    If the MSM journalists want to restore credibility and regain a value position in the new information world then they should let go of historical ways of doing business and find a way to add real value to information I am consuming.

  5. Howard, don’t you believe that newspapers – if they suddenly want reporters to take pictures/camera shooting – have an obligation to train the staff? After all, you speak of professionalism and that goes two ways: if I act professional, then I expect to be treated professionally and in no other industry would I be asked to carry out new tasks without adequate training.

    And another point: what if a reporter operates in a non-online area or an area where online doesn’t play a large part – either to them or the readership – should they still invest their time in this?

  6. Of course, camera and training together is always better.

    Camera, training and a set of skilled, experienced web staffers to guide you is better still.

  7. Howard, assuming that reporters are trained on what good video is and how to tell good stories with video, what would you recommend for video equipment.

    Or more to the point, what kind of equipment should a modern news organization have? Should an organization have different levels of equipment for different stories and staff members?

  8. I think your equipment choices need to fit your strategy.

    First, know what your strategy is.

    Now, if your strategy includes making sure every reporter is equiped with a camera (as I think it should be), then how much do you want to spend and what do you want them to carry.

    If your newsroom is like most, the idea of spending up to $1,000 on each reporter is a pretty big expense. Spending $300 on each is more palatable. So something like the casio makes sense.

    Plus, if you spend $1K on each reporter, will they actually carry and use the camera if they find it too bulk and too much hassle. Again, the casio makes more sense.

    Now, if your video strategy is to have cameras to check out by reporters, or only have a few trained at first, then the Canon HV20 makes a lot of sense.

    And if your strategy is to have one or two dedicated videographers, then you’re looking at some pretty hefty expense, starting with a Canon XH-A1 at $4K or so, plus all accessories and a good editing computer and all the software.

  9. I don’t think we’re looking at making all reporters carry cameras, especially since many of ours are in war zones. We have safety considerations to take into account. I think one day we might be there, but I don’t envision our reporters in the Middle East getting video cameras in 2008.

    We’re thinking of starting off with a few cameras per theater, and everyone who uses the cameras will have training. What do you think of the strategy of looking long term to try to get most reporters a fairly inexpensive camera for day-to-day stories and having a few better cameras for each theater for bigger projects?

    The computers and software are no issues. We never seem to have issues getting that, but it’s been tough to get a budget for cameras. We finally have money to spend though.

  10. Inexpensive cameras for reporters, and a few bigger ones in each theater is pretty much how we have things set up with our New England group.

Leave a Reply