On the oversaturation of news sources

In any natural marketplace, competition is a healthy component. In business, competition forces companies to rethink their strategies, be better at what they do. In education, competition is what makes high school students work harder to do better to get into colleges of their choice. Competition is a driving motivator for many of the things we do in our personal in professional lives. But there's a fine line between healthy competition and oversaturation of a marketplace.

The news industry is in an interesting spot. There is a wealth of information being shared because publishing is easier than ever. Audiences for news are bigger than they've ever been because so many people have access to information. Yet there are huge gaps in coverage of issues that matter.

The Carnival of Journalism question this month is "What steps can be taken to increase the number of news sources?" The question assumes that we should be increasing the number of news sources.  But this doesn't get to the heart of solving what the problems are in the news industry.

As I see it, here is a sampling of a few of the many problems in news industry:

  1. How to make money from it.
  2. How to tap into a wealth of information to create data-driven stories.
  3. How to change the culture of traditional newspapers to survive in a digital era.
  4. Thinking beyond the episodic story to a long-lasting, ever-relevant story format.
  5. Engaging and retaining readers.
  6. Reinventing the news consumption experience.

None of these problems can be solved by creating more sources of news. Patch is living proof that creating more sources of news isn't productive. Aol spent $50 million giving a life to its hyperlocal news project, having already created 800 hyperlocal sites in cities across the United States. This is an increase in the number of news sources, but to what avail? 3 million unique visitors. An average story gets just 100 views.

One of the reasons Patch isn't working is because it's diving into an oversaturated market. Nicholas Carlson at Business Insider says it best:

The real problem with Patch is that no one needs it... Patch is trying to disrupt the newspaper business by, in Clay Christensen's words, giving local news consumers something that is not "better" but "good enough" at a much cheaper cost to the product's producer.

As Carlson notes, Tim Armstrong wanted Patch to fill the void online for the advertising of local events and bringing community news to the surface. Patch is supposed to be the hub of all things local. But sites like Groupon and Facebook are already providing that level of super tight-knit news amongst circles of communities. Patch is about creating more, but not about creating value.

To give you another example, the oversaturated news market is kind of like being at the Consumer Electronics Show, at least as it is described by Helen Walters in a Harvard Business Review post:

The Consumer Electronics Show closes today, after four frantic days in Las Vegas in which about 20,000 new consumer technology products were unveiled to an audience that last year attracted more than 125,000 people. This year, Samsung alone announced 75 new products.

I wasn't there, but rather monitored announcements from a distance. And each one met a similar response: "What?" followed by, "But why?"

I honestly don't want to knock the hard work of executives who are struggling to survive in a terrible economy. But really. 20,000 products? Each one the result of hours, days, weeks, months of meetings and discussions and agonized decision making. Each one apparently accompanied by a breathless press release describing how it represents genuine innovation, not to mention fabulous design. And yes, some of the products will probably even be a welcome addition to our gadget-laden homes. But this as the face of modern day innovation?

Helen describes lots of quantity, little value.  Lots of quantity is not the equivalent of innovation. It's pollution. It's unnovation.

Umair Haque describes in the aforementioned HBR post a new calculus for competition. One based on value:

In a hyperconnected, increasingly transparent world, yesterday's easily placated "consumers" are less and less likely to see "value" in your lowest common denominator.

We derive value from doing things better. Doing things that change people's lives. Doing journalism in a way that matters more -- not in a way that results in more articles, more tweets, more videos, more slideshows to get more pageviews and maybe generate a few more pennies and nickles in the short-term.

Haque's new calculus for competition is based on creating value that lasts in a sustainable way while being of "enduring value to society."

There are gaps in news coverage. Hard-hitting investigative stories are more and more scarce in an era when the 24-hour news cycle demands the "now" factor. We have yet to see a Watergate of our decade. We have yet to see a newspaper or freelancer truly thriving and innovating in a revolutionary way. But that has nothing to do with more sources of news.

So instead of creating more sources of news, we need to be creating more valuable news. We need to create better platforms for delivering news, more efficient means of syndicating news . We need to reduce redundancy in news and do more curating of the truly valuable stuff. We need to reinvent the consumption experience and find new ways to engage and involve readers. But more sources? Not necessarily.

Update (2/19/11 at 1:04 pm PST)

On Twitter, Andy Boyle brought up a few of the following, valid points:

I appreciate this feedback because it made me realize a weakness in my argument. So let me try to re-articulate.

I am not saying that we should have a news monopoly. I am not saying that we should bring creation of new news sources to a screeching halt. The creation of new sources of news and information is a good thing, when there's reason for it. Those new sources of news should come as a result of filling a gap in coverage, creating new value, trying something new. An increase can be the result of better journalism. The key here, I think, is that the starting point shouldn't simply be a goal of "increasing news sources" because that in and of itself is not productive.

As for judging Patch too quickly -- perhaps he's right.