News Is Not the End

Consider entertainment on television. People watch sitcoms or dramas, more or less, as ends in themselves. People want to laugh, cry, or just ogle the actors and reality-show personalities. Not much more, not much less. Seinfeld is an end. America’s Next Top Model is an end. Again, more or less.

Quite the opposite, however, news is the beginning—and always has been. People watch the news or read the news to learn about something else. People want to know about the war-torn country, the gridlocked school board, or a high-flying stock. News is a means to something else.

But to reflect on the history of the news broadcast or the broadsheet—or to see the news media’s foray into the interwebs—you’d never think it. The poised anchor with a firm grip on reality comes to mind. “The first draft of history” does too. Current exhibits A, B, C are undoubtedly the embarrassing lack of outbound links. Journalists want to have the last say, and the historical lack of comments further illustrates the point.

It may be loosey-goosey at best, or unfair at worst, but it’s nevertheless my sense that the public’s twenty-odd-year-old sense of the news media’s “self-aggrandizement” and attempts to hand down opaque (bogus?) neutrality from on high underscore the point. Walled gardens are haughty.

News appears to be an end. In a dead-tree world, in which craigslist was a far-off cyber dream, cultivating that appearance may have made sense. Scarcity, borne by high production and distribution costs, prompted the temporary mirage.

But, in a digital world, that’s largely why Google is running away with all the interwebs’ advertising dollars. Google realized what seems like long ago that advertising sitting idly on a page that has attracted the user for unrelated reasons isn’t valuable. If you’re already where you want to be, you’re not going to click to go elsewhere. The valuable ads actually help you get to your end; they don’t greet you, or blink and scream from the periphery, once you’re already there.

So it is in this context that a very grave report (PDF) has concluded, “The crisis in journalism…may not strictly be loss of audience. It may, more fundamentally, be the decoupling of news and advertising,” which “isn’t migrating online with the consumer.”

And it is, furthermore, in this context that the same report exhorts the news media to shift away from being a product and toward being a service. “How can you help me, even empower me?” This vision “broadens the agenda” from “story telling.” Instead, “journalism must help citizens find what they are looking for, react to it, sort it, shape news coverage, and…give them the tools to make sense of and use the information for themselves.”

The report says, news web sites “must move toward also being stops along the way, gateways to other places, and a means to drill deeper.”

Ultimately, the first question is whether you can put your ad in places where users are hunting for something, and the second question is whether you can make your ad relevant to what the users are hunting for. For google, a search engine is the obvious answer to the first question, and looking at the content of the user’s search is the obvious answer to the second.

For the news media, the answer cannot be quite so simple. But neither must it absolutely be so hard. Journalists must remember that people come to their work because they want something else. Journalists can help them on their way, helping them figure out where they’re going, informing them about the facts en route.

Of course, it will still be harder for the New Yorker to monetize an in-depth article about Abu Ghraib than it is for google to monetize a search for “new camera.” But the point is that maybe it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that News As A Service is extraordinarily valuable.

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