The publisher's dilemma

25 Jun 2012  |  Michael Bayler 

Following on from Media Playground 2012, Michael Bayler, strategist and author, Bayler & Associates, on the relationship between data and the value of content...

"On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other."

Stewart Brand to Steve Wozniak, at the inaugural Hackers' Conference, 1984

All the news that's fit to... aggregate?

At MediaTel Group's recent Media Playground event, our data panel was especially heated. A fascinating thread of discussion briefly emerged around the relationship between data, the value of content and the associated value of advertising. I'd like to dig into this a bit more here.

Bear with me. Let's explore the subject a bit and see where we get to.

We were talking on the panel in particular about news, and in that context, the cost of keeping "proper" journalists on the payroll, in an era where paywalls are tenuous at best, trending in Twitter is, for many millions of quality readers, the new headline, and - cause, effect or both - traditional newspapers are under unbearable commercial pressure.

Fingers are also pointed, understandably, at the news aggregation services of the major online content brands - Yahoo!, MSN et al., and of course, Google, whose utter dominance of search adds a further dimension to their control of user experience and value. Note that all of the mobile operators also have their own news portal propositions.

A profound shift in perceived value

Irrespective of whether - and if so how - these various behemoths are paying for this very costly quality reportage, editorial and publication, there's an underlying dynamic here that concerns me greatly.

While, for now at least, the popularity of such news services continues to rely upon good writing and trusted brands, both the consumer and the advertisers that fund such services are sold, and buy into, different flavours of the same thing: personalisation.

You know the story. Consumers opt in to some sort of "My News" concept, where we tick off the things we're interested in hearing about, and of course, by implication, deselect other subjects. Advertisers are sold these theoretically targetable segments, and the circle is complete when ads - in many cases further contextually and/or behaviourally focused - pop up when we visit the site in question, or receive a pushed news feed.

One concern is raised around the impact of this "personal walled garden" on our breadth and depth of knowledge and culture. Are we simply feeding ourselves the same thing day after day, denying ourselves the variety of informational diet that a healthy mental and civic life surely depend on?

The corrosive effect of all that data

That genuine worry is for another time. For now, there's a purely commercial dynamic that, unless addressed, bodes ill for the whole equation of quality journalism.

As hundreds of millions of consumers become accustomed to these "MyNewsLite" services, we reach a subtle but crucial tipping point, where the personalisation - the "My ..." bit - represents more relative perceived value for the user than the news itself. We typically scan headlines, maybe passing glance at the copy, then skip to the next piece. Or back to what we were doing before.

Outside of the formal news portals, we can already see Twitter and Facebook users adopting the streams of - let's remember, organically personalised - commentary from their own networks as the first, not second or third, port of call for up-to-date information on their worlds.

Why is this a concern? Well, let's remember the value exchange upon which all viable advertiser-funded media rest. Consumers get the content they want, and are thus, at least implicitly, willing to accept the ads that support it... "Brought to you by Brand X" remains more or less meaningful here. This is because the value of the content and the price of the advertising are closely linked.

But a new kind of dynamic has now entered the business, and is heading fast for the heart of it. The commercial value of news - for both consumer and advertiser, note - moves away from the reportage, to the content metadata that enables the material to be tagged by subject area, and the consumer data (fixed, dynamic or often both) that enables the all-important targeting of that material, and from there, the ads.

The perceived value of quality journalism itself is ultimately profoundly diminished. The directly linked price of the associated advertising is equally reduced, with the meager income that's left, one imagines, largely and sometimes entirely going into the pockets of the aggregators.

The end result is that the money to continue to pay for professional quality could soon disappear altogether.

The implications?

This, it seems, could turn out to be a cycle of unusual viciousness.

When we loose unfettered data on content, and where advertising and content are in lockstep with each other in terms of viable exploitation, a downward spiral of both quality and revenue seems inevitable.

I return, again, to a familiar refrain. The information, fascinating though it is, is not intrinsically our friend. And the targeting of advertising, while at first glance an instinctively good thing for most, if not all stakeholders, contains hidden problems that may sadly suffocate the golden goose of quality journalism.

Music, film and other cultural products have already felt the cold breath of data on their necks. Now it's not just the papers, but professional reportage itself, that are endangered: not by piracy or web-scraping, but by the very data that was supposed to reintroduce value to the equation.

I'll finish with this glorious, only recently found quote from the master, George Orwell: "Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations."

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