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Journalism’s biggest competitors are things that don’t even look like journalism

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Ever since the web was invented, newspapers and other media entities have had to continually expand their view of who their competition is: in the good old days it was other newspapers, and then TV, and then after the web it became other news websites, or maybe [company]Yahoo[/company] or [company]Google[/company]. But even now, their perspective on that competition may still be too narrow — as my friend Om has argued, they are competing with anything that captures a reader’s attention. And I would argue that they are competing with any service that fills an information need.

I started thinking about this again earlier this week, when a link to an old blog post by journalist/programmer Stijn Debrouwere showed up in my Twitter stream, posted and retweeted by multiple people. I couldn’t track down exactly where it came from, but I’m glad it appeared, because it reminded me of how much sense it made in 2012 when it was first published — and how much sense it continues to make.

Debrouwere’s essay is simply called “Fungible.” Fungibility is an economic term that is used to describe products or services that are interchangeable; in other words, if consumers don’t really care whether they get Product A or Product B, then those two things are said to be “fungible.”

Journalism is being replaced

What the web is doing to journalism, Debrouwere argues, is taking the things it used to consider its bread and butter and making them fungible in ways they never were before. That hasn’t just changed the business model for news or media companies, it has changed the expectations of their audience in some fundamental ways, ways that go beyond whether someone reads a news story on the web or in print.

I’m not talking about digital first or about blogging or about data journalism or the mobile web or the curation craze. Yes, journalism has evolved and is better for it. I’m talking beyond that. I’m not even talking about the fact that everyone is a potential publisher now… beyond even that. I think journalism is being replaced.

The examples are legion: as Debrouwere notes, many people used to find new music by reading reviews or coverage in a newspaper or magazine, and did the same thing for movies and TV shows — but now they get access to all the music and movies and TV shows they could want, and all the commentary surrounding them, via services like Spotify or Netflix, or websites like IMDB and [company]Amazon[/company]. So what purpose does the local newspaper or newsmagazine serve?

social media generic

If you want to read an expert’s take on a variety of different topics, or listen in on an interview with a celebrity like President Barack Obama, you don’t have to wait for a newspaper or magazine or TV network to interview that person — you can find something similar, and possibly even better, in the crowdsourced interviews that appear on sites like Quora and Reddit.

If you want to read about real estate, you can find dedicated blog networks or sites like Curbed, and the same goes for sports: many people are turning away from their baseball or hockey columnists and newspaper coverage to visit crowd-powered sites like SB Nation or Bleacher Report. And then there are media sites created by commercial entities, such as the editorial operation ticket seller Stubhub said it is launching this week — or the example Debrouwere uses, a video-blogging site launched by an electronics chain called SparkFun. As he puts it:

Curbed is a superb real-estate website. Is Curbed journalism because they started out with news and added a marketplace later? Conversely is SparkFun not journalism because they started out selling components and their video blogs came later? When does a blog or podcast or newsletter stop being content marketing and start being journalism with an innovative business model?

Your competition is everywhere

On a local level, a whole series of websites and services from LocalWiki or Everyblock to Pinwheel are providing people with information about their neighborhoods, Debrouwere points out. And many people are duplicating what they used to get from their newspaper by using Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other platforms. As he puts it, those services may not replace a good local newspaper, “but they offer a combo that is increasingly becoming good enough.”


This is an important point: if you’re a media company, your competition isn’t the product or service that is better than you — and it’s certainly not the one that you think is doing journalism — it’s the one that is good enough for your readers or users. In other words, if it provides a service or information that is useful or valuable to them, that is all that matters, not whether it fits the objective definition of something called “journalism.”

I think this is also what Jeff Jarvis means when he talks about journalism as a service, and it’s what I was trying to get at when I wrote about companies like BuzzFeed and Gawker and Quartz and how they see news as a service: they don’t seem to worry much about whether it’s journalism or not, they are more concerned with whether they are serving readers.

What can you do to survive if you are a traditional media entity? You can adapt, obviously, but you can also do a number of other things, Debrouwere says: focus on storytelling and personality, because those things are irreplaceable, and concentrate on appealing to readers who are passionate about a specific topics. Just don’t think that the only things you’re competing with are other journalistic outlets.

Notice that I didn’t mention digital-first or social data crowdjournalism or anything like that? Wonder why? Because the entire point is that journalism is not being disrupted by better journalism but by things that are hardly recognizable as journalism at all. Stepping up your game is always a good idea, but it won’t save you.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen and Shutterstock / Twin Design and Thinkstock / Surkov Dmitri

14 Responses to “Journalism’s biggest competitors are things that don’t even look like journalism”

  1. It is a good approach to transferring the discussion into the other area. The dilemma “journalism vs. whatever” might be seen as “institution vs. environment”.
    It is the self-service environment that replaced journalism that was nothing more than intermediary institution. The environment is not aimed to destroy journalism, it has simply deprived it of the monopoly.
    It is even not replacement. Institution has simply been dissolving in the environment.
    Andrey Mir,

  2. Timothy W Murray

    I think this article has missed the point, all the way up to the title. Journalism is a very specific thing, and “news” outlets used to include some of it. When a news story is the same as a press release, quite frankly the press release is going to be more accurate. And neither the news story nor the press release that it reproduces are journalism. Anonymous sources, he said/she said, false balance, product announcements, sports scores, movie listings, are time sensitive information but they are not journalism. These sorts of things may compete for our attention, and new sources for this are competing with the ad sales team. But that is not journalism. What is competing with journalism in Americas news rooms is the fact that those news rooms stopped making journalism.

    Wikileaks does more journalism most days than CNN, And at the NYtimes /upshot/ is a case in point of nonsense that is neither news nor opinion. It is most time fact free drivel.
    Journalism requires real subject matter knowledge, something that is noticeably absent from almost all of the media outlets that are complaining that their “journalism” faces new forms of competition.

  3. Yikes.

    You know, by the same token, dancing, live theater, sex, cheap wine, expensive wine, walks in the park, and staring into space have *always* competed with journalism. Similarly, bird-watching and tinkering with small engines have always competed with feature films.

  4. I think what the author is getting at is the ‘lazy eye reader’ effect: the person who’s just trying to wind down, or kill 15minutes or scan the headlines no longer requires fee for service journalism or newspapers. This person isn’t particulry concerned with the quality, just being briefly entertained.

    Junkies will always look for the best of the best, but the 70s journalism expense model was built on volume of eyes and there are just too many alternate outlets for ‘lazy eyes’ to make the model work.

  5. tim schreier

    Interesting, yes but one could argue that it is not “Journalism” or “Story Telling” that is being disrupted. It is “Distribution” that is being disrupted. Good Story Telling or good Journalism is agnostic when it comes to distribution. Related and important but clearly separate issues of “act” and “method”.

  6. Jim Butt

    Complete BS. Cameras can’t add context, insight, or perspective. Pictures don’t actually say a thousand words. Trained, human scribes, reporters, and historians do.

    • zennie62

      “Cameras can’t add context, insight, or perspective. Pictures don’t actually say a thousand words. Trained, human scribes, reporters, and historians do” – got to be the craziest comment in the context of media in the 21st Century I’ve EVER seen. Tell that to TMZ and to the NFL in the wake of the Ray Rice Video Scandal. I can’t believe someone would come up with such an idea. Alas…

  7. Jassa Skott

    Very interesting article. I think this is largely true, except for investigative journalism. When there are major issues or crises, such as school mass shootings or the killing of Bin Laden, or local stories like lawsuits related to violence and murder at the hands of the Denver Sheriff’s department, people may read about it on various sites, but they also revert back to reading top local and national news sites. There is always a significant increase in their web site traffic and print sales for those types of stories. There is still a trust factor involved on certain major events and issues, in tandem with their in-depth storytelling as opposed to news summaries.

    • SixSixSix

      Deep investigation is exactly what is at risk in age of rapid but shallow information distribution. The good old days as usual may have been largely an illusion, but bloggers and Twits don’t have the depth to dig in where it counts. But then the traditional media totally blew the real story behind the 2004 Dan Rather setup as well. Who produced those convincingly faked documents to make him look bad? The CIA drug story got suppressed in attention for decades by the conventional outlets. Nothing’s perfect.