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Jeff Israely: In the quest for speed and quantity, there’s still a place for quality

Our startup correspondent, building Worldcrunch in Paris, says the balance and tension between different journalistic ideals is what creates value.
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Editor’s Note: Jeff Israely, a former Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, has launched a news startup called Worldcrunch. For the past two years, he’s been describing and commenting on the process here at Nieman Lab. Read his past installments here.

Consider this the second of three installments in what I’m calling The False (And True) Dilemmas In Finding Your News Industry Business Model. Last time it was the question of B2B vs. B2C. Next time it will be paid vs. free. For this post, my true-and-false dilemma is content quality vs. content quantity.

From corporate suites to startup basements, a lot of brainpower is pouring into finding new business models for the news industry. We too are in this scrum, and spend as much creative energy on this pursuit as we do on designing cool features and producing great stories.

And yet — what if we pulled an old, brutally simple business concept off the shelf to serve as the lantern that will guide us through the dark corners of this tricky, transformative moment for the news business?

Last spring, in a different context, Canadian entrepreneur Ashkan Karbasfrooshan summed up the pursuit of digital value in a way that just kind of stuck in my head: Ultimately, the company that can create the best content at the lowest cost possible will create most value over time.

It seems so simple and irrefutable — but the truth is that over the past five or so years this approach has come to be seen by many as quaint, if not outright naïve in the face of news industry economics that seem to exclude the very possibility of factoring in quality. The potential instead seemed to rest in both how much can be produced for so little (plugging into the crowd or computer algorithms to take care of producing the content) and in how best to make it all circulate.

Even those who still relied on paid professional humans to bake the daily bread have been swept up by the pursuit of “traffic generation,” the quest for the proverbial eyeballs. You could even tweak the old business adage to: Whoever produces the highest quantity (of clicks) at the lowest cost wins.

But now, it seems the equation is changing yet again: With the advent of the tablet and its ‘quality-time’ experience, and a growing willingness amongst consumers to pay for digital journalism — as well as the sinking returns on digital display ads.

Though highest-quality-at-lowest-cost is hardly sufficient to solve the broader industry trends – yes, brand new business models and revenue streams are still very much needed! – the dictum does provide some bearings, particularly for those of us who are building (and rebuilding) news brands around a core of original journalistic production.

There’s more to news than speed

The craft of journalism is potentially as infinite as our attention spans are short. The best editors will tell you first to report the hell out of it and then write it as long as it needs to be — and then they’ll swiftly (and rightly) cut your epic masterpiece for space or taste or both. That’s the traditional, high-quality journalistic process working on all cylinders: smart story selection, deep reporting, space for writing, tough edits — and without regard to cost.

Karbasfrooshan’s dictum above reminds us that quality exists along a continuum, often (but not always) linked to the cost of achieving it. Quantity, of course, come with its price as well. The imperative is to find new, economical ways to increase both.

A news business, however, is all about making choices, both about which story to do in what way, and which new product to launch in what market — and of course, ever more these days, what must be left undone and unlaunched for lack of time or money.

Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal recently spent some time on the job with Kevin Reynolds, who runs Bloomberg’s “Speed Desk,” which serves up the latest news flashes from around the world, often whooping the competition. Weisenthal noted the resources that go into churning out such a “mind-blowing” news product — identifying two factors that always play up against cost: speed and accuracy.

That’s a wire model (Weisenthal is himself a one-man news wire), a good starting point to think about the economics of how news is produced and distributed. But to take into account other forms of journalism, I would expand the list to five: speed, accuracy, range, depth, and…grace.

We should also note that beyond traditional first-hand reporting and editing, the shift to digital makes such things as curation, creation of digitally native and multimedia content, and social media engagement also have their place in these tradeoffs.

In our particular case — a global news site that gets the best foreign-language journalism into English — we saw the tradeoff between quantity and quality a couple of months ago when we went beyond just full-length translated articles from licensed partners and added in shorter aggregated pieces culled from a variety of sources. We did it in part because it allowed us to be more reactive to events happening anywhere (speed, range), but we also did it simply out of a need to increase our content output (quantity) at a lower cost.

But we are well aware that if we focus too much on this formula, we will suffer in a loss of depth and grace. (Accuracy must be the non-negotiable — though it too can suffer from all the competing pulls on limited resources.)

The business questions that dovetail with these editorial choices are many. Who is your audience? What place do you want to occupy in the market? In the news cycle? How do you want to be consumed? Where is your revenue coming from? Very quickly, once you start producing content in a new way, you see how long it takes to turn out each piece, how much it costs — and soon after, your return on investment.

The price of talent

The great news brands, of course, manage to do it all — and figure out how to calibrate their choices to achieve the right mix at any given moment. Finding the best people — yes, those humans again — is of course central. Some will be better at cranking it out, some at digging deep — others will have the master’s touch. Not everyone can be a Hemingway, or a Weisenthal.

But more to the point, just saying “we’re gonna find great people” is not a game plan: You’re competing with (almost) everyone else who has the same objective in mind. We know that the best people also have their price.

When I was starting out in the news business in Northern California in the mid-1990s, the highest-paid journo in town was San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. It was said that you could find a whole newspaper in his daily column, a potpourri of scoops, scooplets, witticisms, and observations about his hometown and whatever crossed his radar that day.

Caen worked his sources. He aggregated bits of worthwhile information found elsewhere. He provided quality and quantity, on a wide range of topics with a writerly grace to turn – and sometimes coin – phrases. If he were alive today, Caen no doubt would have San Francisco’s premier city blog. The only question: Who could afford to host it?

Photo by Jim Rees used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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