Unbundling Traditionally Editorial Value-Adds

Felix Salmon does a brilliant job of deconstructing what a great newspaper does once it’s got “just-the-facts” news in hand:

  1. It turns news into stories: well-written, well-edited, not-too-long pieces which provide perspective and context and a bit of analysis too.
  2. It takes those stories and prioritizes them: important stories get big headlines on the front page; less-important stories are relegated to the back. A newspaper provides a crucial editing-down function, providing a way of navigating the sea of news by pointing out the most significant landmarks.
  3. It takes those prioritized stories and turns them into a finely-honed object, a newspaper. That’s what Thomson is talking about when he praises the Spanish newspapers—they’re very good at intuitively guiding the reader around the universe of news, making full use of photography, illustration, typography, white space, and all the other tools at a newspaper designer’s disposal.

Felix then goes on to write a post about customization—defined as giving value-adds (2) and (3) over to readers—and how it hasn’t worked when newspapers have tried it.

I agree with Felix that customization at the level of one publication isn’t terribly useful. That’s because there’s just not that much to customize. Relative to the universe of news—or even just the galaxy of financial news, say—someone who customizes the Journal just doesn’t hide all that much bad stuff or make it all that much easier to find the good stuff.

Let me be clear: I agree that customization can be a lot of upfront work, and I agree that amount of work will ward off many readers, but it’s not at all clear that there isn’t a relatively small (but absolutely substantial) group of users who have tastes that editors and designers miss or don’t appreciate.

But is customization at the level of an aggregator is equally suspicious? I find that once a reader is reading dozens of sources anyhow, value-adds (2) and (3) are more of a hindrance than a help. Whatever value a reader gets out of them is often overwhelmed by the simple inconvenience of having to jump around many different websites.

On the other hand, a customizable aggregator represents a return to the convenient one-stop shop. The reader’s customization may seem like source of value-add (2), but there’s nothing to say the Journal couldn’t serve a feed of articles with “big headlines.” This is what’s going on with the list of most-emailed articles—”emasculating” the editors. That’s essentially what google news and digg and their distant cousins do. And even if we don’t particularly like how they do it (I don’t), we should both respect that this project of figuring out alternative ways to accomplish value-add (2) is very young.

In the end, there’s nothing about your main value-adds (1)-(3) that requires them to come together. Why not unbundle them? Why not give some users the ability not to care about what an editor cares about. After all, an editor is just offering a guess—an intelligent one, to be sure—about what readers want. But who even knows which readers—the mean, the median, the mode, the ones on Wall Street, the ones on Main Street?

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