Scale: the new challenge for journalism
Feb 1, 2014
Scale becomes the crucial factor for journalism success as content production needs to meet exponentially increasing demands.
The elements used in the pursuit of improving the quality of journalism have essentially been the same since it emerged in post-Gutenberg history. Modes of investigation, defining sources, the five W’s, impartiality, ethics, etc. As I've noted in another post, none of these have lost their validity (although some have radically changed). But ultimately, journalism is a content production process, and a new criterion has become the most important: the ability to produce in large quantities.
The subject is rarely discussed in newsrooms and never in journalism schools (probably the entities most out of step with their time on the face of the Earth). Basically, it boils down to one question:
Does this scale?
The techno-media jargon refers to the ability of a certain process (for example, the production of news on a particular subject to feed a media outlet's feed) to maintain the same standards and characteristics once subjected to exponentially greater demand. In another example: you opened a custom content production company. You proposed to your client a package with the delivery of one hundred contents per week at a certain value. He responds by saying that he is interested but wants to know if you can multiply the delivery by 10. You do the math and conclude that you cannot. In this case, your process/product does not scale.
The problem is central to new media operators, those that do not depend on the legacies of traditional media, like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and even some whose digital migration is relevant, like BBC and NYT. Greater demands require more content, and the processes of personalizing this content delivery make the demand even greater, reaching numbers unthinkable for traditional media. Just over a decade ago, for example, there was not a company capable of producing three thousand pieces of content per second, but today, Twitter does this - on average (reaching peaks of 8 to 10 thousand in more popular events). And before you ask, yes, the question originated in Silicon Valley. Startups can’t even go to the toilet without first asking themselves if it scales or not.
The ability to scale not only generates traditional problems such as team size, tax incidence, or time interval between the production of one or another content. Complex network and database organization problems appear when it is necessary to meet demands that are thousands of times larger. Giants like Twitter, Google, and Amazon dedicate immense amounts of resources to create solutions.
But what does journalism have to do with this? Everything. Basically, journalism turned into a commodity at the end of the pre-digital era (where news agencies simply created the industrial version of news that scrapped the international coverage of 80% of the world's newspapers). The cost began to determine whether a newspaper produced a type of content or bought it from an agency. Now, with the almost-infinite capacity to offer to the same client (the reader), the value of the agency's content has strongly decreased (repeated contents have low SEO value). Content production processes now need to offer scale to be in the running.
Throughout the twentieth century came the ability of media companies to dominate delivery alternatives. In Brazil, only two companies were responsible for virtually the entire market for newspaper and magazine delivery. The scale as a determining element in the ability to offer content explains why traditional media were completely taken out of the game.
Without a doubt, traditional media companies that are thinking about reorganizing must have the issue of scale in mind. Industry leaders like the New York Times point the way to partnerships for custom, branded, and video content to generate revenues that do not exist today and rebalance the adolescent digital market. All these alternatives go through the issue of being able to increase the quantity of production. Video, for example, is the Rosetta Stone of content currently. Advertisers and agencies are very excited about the levels of engagement and lead generation achieved in the format, but most companies cannot leverage production at the necessary scale.
But beyond companies, journalists also need to be aware of the paradigm shift, of what the determining factors are in the success or failure of a type of content or endeavor. Small and micro-suppliers of information will gain space with technology and journalists will have to prove that they are worth more of the investment than a non-journalist.