09/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gawking at the Washington Post

On July 9, Ian Shapira, staff writer for the Washington Post wrote a 1,500 word fluff piece about consultant Anne Loehr, who explains GenY to their cohabitants in the workplace. Then Gawker's Hamilton Nolan blogged the story, reprinting some of Anne Loehr quotations from the Post piece.

Ian Shapira was initially happy: apparently even in mainstream media, getting a nod from one of the big blogs is now a coup to be celebrated (how times have changed).

The Outrage

But, his editor wasn't so happy. He responded: "They stole your story. Where's your outrage, man?" Where indeed?

So Shapira changed his tune, and now he is outraged (sort of). He spent about two days investigating and writing that 1,500 word story, only to get ripped off by some blogger.

Writes Shapira:

With all the pontificating about the future of newspapers both in the media and in Capitol Hill hearings, I began wondering if most readers know exactly what is required to assemble a feature story for a publication such as the Post.

When You Are Drowning, How Much Is a Glass of Water Worth?

A more pertinent question might be:

I wonder what most readers would think if they knew how much time and money the Washington Post decided to spend on such a meaningless story?

All this points to some big problems in the news business -- and the problem isn't bloggers "stealing" stories. The problem is measuring the value of content. (See the cost breakdown and analysis of the controversy at the Neiman Lab).

Pre-Web, written content was relatively scarce, and people wanted to read fluff. So newspapers paid writers to write lots of fluff, which filled a demand for a valuable commodity. The fluff was used that to sell newspapers, ads, and subsidize hard news.

But in the world of the Web, we are swimming in a sea of written content. Much of it fluff. The overwhelming majority of it produced without a cent getting exchanged -- by bloggers. Some of it is produced by professional blog outfits like Gawker, who produce it much cheaper than a newspaper does.

So, when other people are providing for free some of the kinds of content you used to sell, then you can't keep selling it. And the "free" is on both ends: free for readers, and free from producers.

Put another way, can you imagine a Gawker blogger spending a *DAY* writing that post?

A quick investigation shows that the Gawker writer of the article, Hamilton Nolan, writes about 10 articles a day, I expect without an editor spending any time on his copy.

So: how can Washington Post compete against Gawker's 10x content output advantage, and probably 40x cost advantage? Answer: they can't, if they compete in creating the same kinds of content. Question: do you think the Washington Post piece was worth 10 times more to you as a reader than the Gawker piece was? Was it worth 40 times more to you as a reader?

Wikipedia vs. Britannica

See, for instance, Britannica's original response to Wikipedia. Wikipedia offered basic general information, easily, for free, usually with links out to more substantial info. Whether or not Wikipedia is "as good as" Britannica matters not a whit to its millions of readers: it is "good enough" for them, meaning that the sale value of "just providing basic general information" got a lot closer to zero, all of a sudden. I'm not sure how Britannica is doing these days, but if it is to survive, it has to innovate in ways that deliver more value than "just providing basic general information." And its in that added value where the new business opportunities lie (and I don't claim to know the answers for Britannica).

In the same way, newspapers have to come to terms with an info marketplace where the value of fluff is approaching zero, while unique, good reporting has a value greater than zero.

Building a Media Business Around Value

So, again, my question is: why would newspapers pay a staff writer to spend a full day investigating and writing a 1,500 word fluff piece when there are a million fluff pieces all over the Web getting published every day? What value are they adding to the info marketplace, and is that value worth the money/time they've spent on it?

One answer might be: why not strike a deal with some of the better fluff-piece content providers on the Web (say, BoingBoing, Gawker, etc, etc), and just republish those pieces (perhaps with a copyedit for style, etc). In that way, newspapers could still provide the horizontal content that keeps people reading the serious stuff and ads, but could probably cut the costs of the junk they publish in half, or more.

They already license lots of content from wire services, maybe its time to start licensing content from bloggers too.

And then they could focus on their strengths:
  • aggregating eyeballs
  • selecting a good mix of stories
and most importantly:
  • investigating and writing about stories that other people won't or can't write about

[cross-posted at the Book Oven Blog]