Sep 30, 2009

Faster, cheaper, less nutritious

I've often wondered if the newsroom of the future would look more like a fast-food joint than the big newspaper newsrooms we see today.

Instead of delivering news to the doorstep like the erstwhile milk man did, news will be delivered through websites on the information superhighway. This means people will be looking for a convenient place to stop to get some news quick before getting back on the road. Whether on their office computer, their cell phone or their laptop at home, they will be looking for predictable markers to find the site, predictable menu items to peruse and a predictable time line for how long it takes to get and then consume what they came for.

People might even pay for this predictability.

If the virtual world shapes up like the real one has, this would probably mean more networked wire services churning out easily digestible stories packaged together by local crews but using fewer local ingredients.

This type of format for online news seems inevitable - it's how we consume things. The San Diego News Network seems to be headed in that direction, with its Starbucks business plan. So does MediaNews Group, which has individual newspapers that use similar online templates and route copy through centralized desks so it can be shared by the group. Other chains will either sell or follow suit.

It doesn't mean all higher-end offerings will be crowded out - SDNN isn't going to kill the New Yorker anymore than McDonalds killed Tavern on the Green*. There will still be readers who want to savor the news. Also, news content cannot be completely divorced from geography since people still care about local sports teams, local schools and local businesses. Still, I think we can expect more conformity than differentiation on the web in the coming decade. Conformity is easier to capitalize upon.

If the cookie-cutter approach goes too far it might invite a welcome backlash, just as industrial farming and fast-food restaurants brought us farmer's markets and the organic movement. Let's also hope quality alternative and local media find good real estate along the highway.

*Updated 10/1: An imperfect comparison at best, it turns out. As a reader pointed out, Tavern on the Green filed for bankruptcy in September. I doubt McDonalds was to blame and the point still holds up - hell, with the way bankruptcies have hit newspaper companies, maybe it's even closer to the truth.

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