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Black Swan Imbroglio: The Crisis of Journalism and Control of the Stack

Posted: 11/ 2/10 02:49 PM ET

The crisis of journalism is a classic, slow-motion Black Swan imbroglio. Nearly every news organization saw the crisis coming, but hardly any proved to be capable of mounting an effective response. The story is already stale and yet it continues to remain intractable, organizationally and professionally, for most media organizations. The old way -- paid advertising, paid subscriptions, limited competition -- has collapsed and media companies are scrambling desperately to reach the other side of the chasm before they are buried forever in debris.

The "other side" holds the promise of a "new direction", driven by data, metrics, graphics, social media, rich media, sponsored events, text advertising, and ... what? Everyone sees the parts but no one yet grasps the whole. And so even if they manage to leap the divide, they cannot gain their bearings and gauge magnetic north, and they wander hither and yon.

For an example, consider the rebranding efforts of established Washington, DC political publications such as the National Journal, which now closely resembles Politico, with short-form video, blogs, opinion essays, lists, polls, requests for followers on Facebook and Twitter, and mobile apps.

The National Journal website looks great. However, the visible beauty of the new media cannot sustain itself on social blips, hyperlocal news coverage, blog aggregation, and short-form reporting. The enormous magnitude of the information landscape limits vastly the capacity of any landform on that landscape to capture the shifting spotlights of individual (or collective) attention for more than a fraction of a moment.


An Answer Under Our Feet

Here is a different view of the matter, with an approach the media industry can use to find its footing and regain its bearings. The answer is under our feet. The journalistic "whole" in the 21st century will be about controlling and having access to the "stack". The stack refers to the horizontal slices of the process that takes vast amounts of raw information and transforms it into useful material for telling interesting and important stories.

I want to be clear here that I am not really talking about social media. It is certainly true that the top layer of the stack -- the social interfaces and rich media -- is the sexier, more alluring part of the stack (the rack of the stack, as it were). And that top layer is where many companies are focusing their attention, with every effort to grab attention, go viral, and grab clicks and eyeballs.

However, consider the National Journal and Politico examples. If everyone claims the top layer of the stack -- and it is not difficult to start a blog or create a Facebook page -- no one has any true claim. The most successful media companies will control the stack at deeper levels. They will control the content.

Let's burrow underground, to the bottom of the stack, away from the light, and pay attention to what is real. The media fuel of the 21st century is data. It is as valuable as coal in the 19th century and oil in the 20th century. Any company that manages, shapes, and disseminates the data -- on any subject or in any domain -- can power, drive, and direct the media economy.

Bloomberg's Giant Fear Machine

The DC political journalism establishment quakes palpably at the looming emergence of Bloomberg Government. Earlier this year, Bloomberg appointed Kevin Sheekey, former Deputy Mayor of New York under Mayor Bloomberg, to oversee the development of Bloomberg Government. At that time, the press release announcing this appointment stated:

Kevin will oversee a service that applies Bloomberg's unmatched capabilities in data gathering and analytics to a one-stop, integrated information source of government information. Bloomberg is ideally positioned to address the fragmented market for information about people, decisions and data in Washington that affect business.

The key term in this statement is "integration", which drives the government data opportunity - the development of a news and data product that presents a unified, single view of federal government information.

Bloomberg understands the importance of the data stack, and of data integration -- but only to a point. Bloomberg's own instincts -- reminiscent of Apple's - to tightly control the user experience mean that we can probably expect Bloomberg Government to offer bland short-form story-telling and pre-packaged analytics. Moreover, in its business focus, Bloomberg Government appears to tilt sharply toward the lobbying and contracting markets.

For reasons I will outline below, the Bloomberg Government approach may target the wrong markets and miss the opportunity that control of the stack presents from the perspective of data integration. This not only leaves an opening for its traditional news competitors inside the Beltway -- who have long served the lobbying and contracting markets and know them well. It also leaves an opening for any data-driven business that properly identifies the federal government data integration opportunity.

The Beltway -- Considered Philosophically

Let's elevate our view above the markets and imagine the federal government information landscape philosophically, as part of the republican fabric of our nation's Constitution. The integration of government data benefits from the realization that the "Belt" wending its "way" around Washington is substantive law, which is the glue, the common language, between the government inside the Beltway and the business heartland outside the Beltway.

Because the lobbying and contracting opportunities are so large, Bloomberg (and other DC media companies) may not fully realize the importance of this legal and compliance prism for interpreting and translating what happens in government in terms that are meaningful for both businesses and citizens.

Consider the following.

  • The Beltway encircles Washington, DC.
  • The Beltway is a wall separating government from businesses and citizens.
  • Laws and rules and court opinions flow across the wall, from the federal government to the heartland.
  • Disclosure information (filings, forms, comments, replies), flows across the wall in the opposite direction, from businesses and individuals in the heartland to the government.
  • Any company that commands the heights of this wall - managing and organizing and making transparent this flow of information back and forth from government to heartland - can dictate the shape and direction of journalistic storytelling and analysis in the 21st century.
  • This exciting project allows the company bestriding the top of this wall to serve any number of noble goals and purposes. Transform communication. Elevate understanding. Improve decision-making. Strengthen compliance. Limit risk. Save time. Increase efficiency. Spur innovation. Create opportunity. Inspire story-telling. And support the information foundations of democracy.


Journalism and Law

From the perspective of substantive law, the rivers of government data flowing in both directions across the DC Beltway provide a significant integration opportunity from which journalism can only benefit. The online data business needs a pivot for meaningful journalistic storytelling. Because almost nothing remains untouched by the lawmaking, rulemaking, and casemaking of the federal government, substantive law provides a wonderful pivot for organizing and integrating all of the data that sluices forth from these activities.

The significance of this pivot becomes particularly evident when one considers the broadened scope of federal lawmaking and rulemaking in the past 75 years. The Glass-Steagall Banking Act of 1933 totaled 37 pages. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act totaled 2,323 pages. In 1959, the Federal Register totaled 11,116 pages. In 2004, it totaled 75,657 pages. Implementation of Dodd-Frank alone will require 243 rulemaking actions and 67 studies!

Any business that gains the ability to harvest, index, parse, and classify the river of data flowing in both directions across the Beltway -- lawmaking and rulemaking and casemaking flowing out and legal and business disclosure flowing in -- will be uniquely positioned to source and frame the way business, legal, policy, and political information is consumed and delivered.

The future of journalism and publishing lies at the bottom of the stack.