The Future of Information

This article has been sitting in my drafts folder since January 12. In the meantime, several more journalists have also decided to part ways with their employer and venture on their own. I figured now is a good time to publish it.

I tweeted this on December 11, a week after The Information launched:

[I] don’t know if @theinformation will make it. But I think the model of small team + expertise + dedicated crowd is the future of today’s journalism.

If you’ve read my about page then you can probably guess I have more than 140 characters to say about this. Here are some…

First, as the quoted tweet suggests, this isn’t about whether The Information itself will be successful — financially or journalistically — in the long haul. This is about the model by which it operates, and the major role I think that model will play in the future of journalism.

Secondly, let’s differentiate between journalism and reporting. The latter is only one part — integral as it may be — of the former. I think big organizations will dominate news breaking and reporting for a long time to come. They will still be responsible for the “what,” but less and less for “what does it mean?”. They’ll serve mainly as middlemen of information — an important and nontrivial task in itself — but not much more beyond that.

In the future, we’ll have ‘knowledgeables’.

Knowledgeables won’t “kill” today’s journalists. They will simply supplant them where anything substantially more complicated than a “what” is needed. Nobody is going to go out of business when this happens. In fact, as the separation between reporters and knowledgeables (both journalists) becomes more dichotomous, everyone wins. Everyone wins by doing what they do best. In this case: Journalists deliver, knowledgeables analyze. This is called specialization.

Forming small, self-owned, and single-focus groups, knowledgeables will play a different game than the one news companies are struggling to survive in. To be sustainable, these specialized cells won’t have to break any news1, serve a meager diet of ads as content, or deal with every item out there just to feed the hungry ratings machine. They won’t cater to everyone, only to their everyone.

Dedicated crowd: With their current business model, big syndicates operate horizontally and therefore cannot satisfy dedicated crowds. They can’t go in-depth with the subjects that matter to some of us all of the time, only those that matter to all of us some of the time. The Information is arguably filling the void for a dedicated crowd of tech know-hows and executives. But this is not the only void waiting to be filled. We are all — to an extent — part of a dedicated crowd of something(s), whether by choice or circumstance.

Now that Lessin & Co. have embarked on a venture that follows the model, it’s only a matter of time until others follow suit. Critics of this piece might say that what I’m talking about has already occurred during “the blogging boom”, or that I’m hallucinating. Both would be right, but only partially.

Expertise: Today’s mainstream journalists can’t afford to specialize. Their editors want them chasing the next big story, preferably a scandal that’ll keep as many of their potential audiences watching, clicking, or buying copies from the news-stands. That’s where link-baiting, flashy headlines, and the ubiquitous “right after the break” come from. Mainstream media has to ping our senses constantly and keep us in suspense, whilst shooting for the lowest common denominator.

How else can you get 19-year-old Sandy, a Miley Cyrus fan, and Jennifer, her 50-year-old bookworm mother, to watch the same news bulletin?

A lil’ bit-o-Miley, a lil’ bit-o-Dow, and a lil’ bit-o-homicide.

But dedicated crowds are looking for more of the same, and although today’s journalists can’t address this demand, knowledgeables can. First, because they’re not exhausted by a never-ending scoop-chase and can afford to specialize2. Second, because they’re able to operate vertically, business-wise. Which brings us to the next part of the model.

Small team: Dedicated crowds are the best crowds because they care. Not only do they care enough to spend the time required to understand the subject at hand, they are also willing to pay for information (or tools) that will deepen this understanding. Mainstream would love to get this kind of engagement, but in absolute terms, any dedicated crowd — no matter how dedicated — is far too small a market for a big media outlet.

Not necessarily too small for knowledgeables, though. If you employ 500 people and have an annual revenue of $2 million, you’re in trouble. Divide this number by ten, and it becomes an entirely different story. That’s why we’ll see knowledgeables capture markets mainstream can’t even dream of entering: less people to divide the money between.

When you want to be first at every scene, you create a correlation between your performance and the size of your HR department. Since expertise isn’t about knowing everything, but rather understanding a few things really well, knowledgeables don’t have to unite in hundreds (not even dozens) to satisfy their crowds.

An aside on price & market size:

I’ll have to use The Information again because it’s the only example available at our disposal at the moment. Some people claim that the problem with said site is the price: $39 a month. But we have to remember that market size and cost (also value) of information acquisition are almost always inversely proportional. Forty bucks push a lot of people out of the potential subscriber base, but is it too expensive for the crowd the publisher is targeting for?

This is an open question in The Information‘s case. Indeed, for subscription-based sites, the balance between market size and price is still up to the publisher to find.

My friend Sid O’Neill scanned this text for bloopers, and for that I thank him.

  1. They might, though. But scoop-chasing makes little sense to a knowledgeable from an economical point of view. ↩︎
  2. In most cases they’d already be experts to start with. ↩︎
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