The media forgets it is in the being useful business

A lot of media entities — and the journalists who work for them — think they are in the news business and all of their strategies and initiatives are wrapped around that concept.

But despite the much-burnished reputation of the Fourth Estate and the unchallengeable value of a Free Press, that’s not the business they are in — not at all. Media companies are in the business of being useful, useful with information that people consider news at precisely the moment they want to know it

This collective lapse of memory of what it is traditional media enterprises do may explain why the Drudge Report is one of the top news sites, why Google News is the bogeyman man, and why Wikipedia is the first place many people go to find the latest news on a specific topic, person or thing.

Instead of doing journalism as a means to be useful, journalism is being done because it can.

Being useful means both speed (having the information when I want it) and content (having the information I want). On the Web, having well-organized links to the information is having the information readers or users want.

As I write this, two of top three stories on the knoxnews/govoslxtra sites are simply links to external content, a roundup of blogger react to the VP debate and what ‘s being written about the Tennessee football team.

I would suggest part of the reason for the popularity of these two stories vs the thousands of others on the sites is that they are found to be useful right now.

Here’s a look from a different vantage point. The top referring domains to the sites in the last 30 days are: Google, Legacy (where our obits are posted), Yahoo, Drudge Report, and PajamasMedia (Instapundit). All five are sites that are focused on providing useful information. The two giant search engines are dependent on complex algorithmic search results. Drudge Report and Instapundit rely on the skill of humans to find the news we will find useful to know — rather quickly.

On Monday, Alan Mutter wrote:

As I scrambled from website to website this morning for the latest news while my retirement melted away, the place that consistently had the most complete, convenient and up-to-date information was the Drudge Report.

For all the millions of dollars and thousands of people employed at the mainstream newspapers, broadcast networks and cable channels, Drudge had assembled the perfect mix of salient links and real-time information …

Scott Karp had some thoughts a few weeks ago about what makes Drudge successful that dovetail with Mutter’s comments

If you don’t think your business is being useful to your users/readers/viewers (some more crass businesses would call them customers), then I would suggest your journalism is failing.


  1. Legacy media still bases its business on a legacy definition of the word “journalism” (via … “the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news or of conducting any news organization as a business.” That entry is based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary.
    New media is committing a flavor of journalism defined by citizens (via Wikipedia) … “the profession of writing or communicating, formally employed by publications and broadcasters, for the benefit of a particular community of people.”
    Media entities are in the “news” business based on the first definition. Those entities would be wise to read and deliver the journalism that the public has defined: “for the benefit of a particular community of people.”

  2. Thank you! This really gets to the heart of so much that’s wrong in the industry.
    I might add that so many online sources appear to be more genuine in their desire to be helpful. Newspapers stuck on the old journalism also tend to be stuck on the old PR. They’ve lost the trust of their readers with good reason. Gaining it back will really take a new model that recognizes that wanting to be helpful can’t be faked. Like marriage, you’ve got to do all the little things that show you care. If every move is calculated to maximize profit, you’re just like a husband who does the dishes only when he’s expecting something in return. It creates resentment.

  3. Remember, in legacy media (disclaimer – I work in IS/IT for a legacy media company) the CUSTOMER is the advertiser – the people who watch/read are viewers/readers, at least to most folks around here. To quote someone about 9-10 years ago “we are in the business of selling eyeballs to advertisers”
    Kinda sums it up, eh? The more people of the “right” demographic looking at your content, the more you can sell your ad space/time for.
    Lets face it, your Upper East/West side reader/viewer who has (well, HAD) a lot more disposable income, and therefor was worth a LOT more to many advertisers than say the average suburban “soccer Mom/Dad” – which is why the Times has advertisers like the fashion industry, and your local suburban paper has the local grocery store

  4. I’ve heard that sentiment. And even in the organizations where you often hear this, I have noted that the “customer service department” is not the area that deals with advertisers. You’ve also got to make the people behind the eyeballs your customer, too. A lost audience is not easily regained. If advertisers are a content organization’s only customers, I suspect its long-term prospects are limited.

  5. While respecting all the thought and study of so many, I have to disagree with the simple logic of “eyes to advertisers” as our bottom line. The problem is that it is inherently manipulative. We draw readers with the premise that we want to help them. If we’re not serious about that, if we don’t keep that promise, then it’s going to show. Business success must backed by integrity of principles. What is so refreshing about blogs is the absence of the underlying conflict of priorities that is so plain in the news business.
    Of course that doesn’t mean that we can’t be serious about making money. But real, solid, lasting readership (in the absence of a media monopoly) is built on a focus on the reader’s needs first, then profiting from his readership as a secondary concern.

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