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?
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.