A View from Christopher Mims
What's Wrong With Almost Every Old Media-Inspired New Media Startup
Tired theories about what it takes to succeed on the web neglect the fact that the web is no longer where media innovation happens.
In a perfect world, we would take every old media dinosaur turned new media pundit, every director of a center for entrepreneurial journalism who has never launched a successful online news venture, and every column about how we should “blow up the news story and build new forms of journalism” and toss them into the maw of hell, but not before driving stakes into their black hearts to make sure they can’t come back from the dead. (Attention conservation notice for incoming comment trolls: hyperbole.)
What all these sages have in common is a fundamental misreading of what journalism “needs” and how it’s going to survive in the 21st century. Here’s a handy list of red flags that should tell you it’s not worth listening to a proposal to “reboot” journalism for new media:
1. Proposals to replace “the story” as the unit of journalism with “data,” “maps,” “mashups,” “interactivity” etc.
With all due respect to Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact, his latest column for Poynter, “Let’s blow up the news story and build new forms of journalism,” is an absolute classic of the genre. What should we do instead of news? Oh I dunno, how about crime maps. Have you heard about these? They’re the newest thing… er, have been for almost a decade a novelty that everyone pretty much ignores.
2. Zero conception of where the money is going to come from.
In this day and age, imagining that you’re going to create something people like and the ad sales guys are going to turn it into a viable business is so naive that I can’t believe anyone who still thinks this way even has a job. The reality is that news has always been subsidized in one way or another, and that’s fine, but that doesn’t make it a business any more than it makes the Red Cross a multinational corporation. (The one exception is information that has a measurable value, which is why business news – think Bloomberg, Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal – is the one area in which paywalls work.)
3. No idea what a new medium actually is.
Saying that you’re going to make something “interactive” or launch some “video” is not the same thing as thinking about the medium. The medium is: app or web. Mobile or desktop. Kindle e-single or iOS in-app purchase. Facebook integration or push notification. These are the media channels that have yet to be thoroughly understood and colonized. If your thinking about the medium begins and ends with what you can stick on a web page, you’ve lost already.
Successful new media startups, on the other hand, tend do do the exact opposite of everything listed above. That is, they accept that “the story” is a cognitive convention rooted deep within the human brain, where narrative is, for most of us, the basic unit of both memory and understanding. Having accepted that, they think about the medium and the money.
Here are some examples of ventures that get it right.
Newser isn’t particularly compelling on the web, where it just feels like another blog but with a less-scannable layout. But its mobile app, possibly by accident, is like crack rock for news junkies. Newser’s super-short news summaries, doled out judiciously so as not to overwhelm the reader, are exactly what the mobile news experience should be. Get the reader in and out with bite-size chunks, and give them an infinitely scrolling list of stories to click on should they want to spend a little more time with the app.
What’s important here is that, far from “blowing up” the story as the unit of journalism, Newser has instead condensed everything that is good about the story into the smallest possible number of words. It’s not exactly Hemmingway, but, like The Week, Newers’s devotion to not wasting the reader’s time is the opposite of interactive infographics and other flashy news baubles that, frankly, few of us have time for.
News.me is a fantastic example of truly innovating with the medium. First off, it doesn’t even exist on the web. Your options are email and mobile, and I love them both with a white hot passion. The genius of News.me is that the stories it shows a user are determined by what’s popular among the folks they follow on Twitter. It’s one of the only attempts at social news I’ve ever seen that just works. Once again, News.me embraces the story as the fundamental unit of journalism, from the “stories” that each tweet tells to the (fairly straightforward) news items that constitute the bulk of what people share.
The Atavist, an effort to sell long form journalism on tablets, has that rare combination of devotion to craft and savviness about business models. Sure, they make money selling their long-form journalism through their iOS app, but they also benefit from often being featured in Amazon’s Kindle singles store, where their stories work almost as well. Not content merely to be content mongers, the folks behind The Atavist are launching a platform for anyone to do what they do – while giving The Atavist a cut, of course. It’s magazine-as-platform: the total package.
Notice that what all of these examples have in common is that where they’re really succeeding isn’t the web. If you think you have the money and clout to be the next Huffington Post, be my guest, go “innovate.” But the web is a surprisingly mature medium, and old-media pundits turned new media hucksters who think they’re going to tell anyone else how to launch a sustainable business there are emperors sans clothes. New media companies that will succeed are founded by two kinds of people: technologists, and media people who think like technologists.