Sun Tzu says: social networks before A/V

Written by Michael on May 17th, 2006

A chorus of my peers yesterday afternoon failed to overturn a pet iconoclasm of mine: unless they’re affiliated with radio or TV stations, most local newspapers should not be dumping lots of money into audio and video. It doesn’t dovetail with our current work, and it dovetails perfectly with the work of our biggest news competitors’ — local radio and TV stations.

Video is more compelling than print, no question. And newspapers have the dominant local Web sites. (I desperately hope we retain them.) So why shouldn’t we introduce video in order to serve and retain our visitors?

Because, in short, it’s not our specialty. We’ve got newsrooms of word reporters. We can find a bunch of great ways to reorganize those words for the Web. We can arrange data in nifty graphics and tables — numbers are a lot like words, really. We cannot, without a lot of training and capital investment, put up a short video of reasonable quality.

If video, like interactive graphics, were a new medium, that’d be different. Nobody has yet institutionalized the delivery of infographics for profit. But video and audio are hugely profitable and masterfully done by very close competitors.

And yet — those competitors aren’t simply better than us. They’re better at different things. The customizable print experience (more on that soon) has given us a newsgathering depth that broadcasters can’t match. We should build on our strengths, not push to provide redundant video services that local broadcasters could do better if they merely lifted a finger on the Web.

I’m not saying that no newspapers should be experimenting with this stuff. But smaller local papers, working with smaller scale economies, have higher priorities, like catching up on search, organizing data into parcels and improving social network functions.

One powerful counterargument that wasn’t quite enough to bring me around to video: our competition here isn’t really local TV; it’s the rest of the non-local-news media landscape.

There are surely times when video, especially, is so compelling that it demands to be included. But we should remember that we can’t, as they say, deliver all things to all people. We should pick our battles.


2 Comments so far ↓

  1. Anonymous says:

    By “customizable print experience” do you mean the ability to build relevance with readers by breaking newspaper information into smaller chunks that can by dynamically assigned and pieced together?

  2. Michael says:

    Depending on what you mean by “dynamic,” it’s something like that, yes.

    I hope it’s clear here that I’m actually talking about the print edition, not a The hard copy of a newspaper is a lot easier to navigate than a Web site — all you have to do is move your eyeballs. By focusing on “layering” stories into hed, subheds, breakouts, graphics, modern print design gives a reader permission to move his eyeballs off the story at a bunch of different parts of the process. This is great; readers should be able to drill down to their desired level of detail, then stop.

    My point here is that with broadcast, there’s no choice involved. Either you tune in for the show, or you don’t. So broadcasters keep their pieces short, lest they alienate their audience.

    A complicated, thorough report can actually detract from a news broadcast. In print, where people can customize their reading of a news story, thoroughness is a much smaller problem. (Good broadcast news, of course, is poetically short and thoughtful. There just aren’t enough poets.)

    All this is my way of explaining why newspapers have more reporters than TV stations. If we understand this, I hope we can build business models that lend themselves to newspaper-level staffing, not TV-station staffing, at the newspaper Web sites of the future.

    Does that make sense?

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