All About the Middle

I don’t have a whole lot of interesting in journalism, but I am going to pay close attention to the current news industry crisis.   Why?  Hint: it’s about much more than the news.

The information revolution has had a dramatically different affect on various industries, but there is a similar theme to them all; the breaking of hierarchal (top down) control by empowering users was what really broke the system.  For the interest of the rest of my post, try picturing the companies as being big dots up above millions of little dots underneath.   If you “connected the dots” (draw the lines of distribution) you would have seen many vertical lines connected to the few big dots at the top.  Now consider today’s situation.   The little dots are connecting with each other- this is the age of the horizontal line.

So why should people pay attention to the new news?  It’s not just a discussion of saving the news, it’s the first time a crisis of industry disruption is being openly debated and (hopefully) rebooting.  I watched or listened to as much of the Aspen Institutes FOCUS 2009 conference as I could because it was a great meeting of minds, and I believe a lot of those concepts will leek into other industries when similar disruption situations occur.

I’ll share some interesting points I noted listening to the conference:

  1. Jeff Jarvis talks of “layoffs with strings”.  When the Top needs to lay off an employee, the employee may be interested in starting their own site.  It would be beneficial for the an organization like the NYT to not only keep ties with a former employee, but to invest in them.
  2. Focus on users.  I can’t stress this enough because if you don’t do it, someone else will.  Your business will suffer if you don’t make the sacrifices your users want to see.
  3. Marissa Mayer had a great idea to include news into your “life stream”.  It would intelligently find news and filter your interests in the form of a Facebook-esque feed.  It’s just another great example for concentrating on user wants, not on your own tradition.
  4. Hyper localization and niche is the key.  People love niches, and they love relevant content.
  5. Many users want to participate, and if they’re shy they like to see other’s participate.  Getting people involved is the surest way to get users returning.
  6. Trust.  Probably the most important point they hit on.  If they don’t trust your site, given an alternative, they will not use your site.  Building will mean being transparency, and transparency is the new objectivity.

Some of these are specific to the print industry, but I’d argue most are idealogical changes that any industry can use to stay relevant (unfortunately most won’t).  It’s about stripping the notion of a top-down control, and about actively being involved in the Middle (with all the little dots).  Stop “fighting the internet” as Dave Winer would say, because in the end your going to get beat.

I owe a lot of this thinking to Jay Rosen, a NYU journalism professor who has tirelessly “reported” on the new news (rebooting the news).