The unbundled future

In August, shortly after Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, I suggested the newspaper might "learn to embrace approaches that scale journalism by turning it into something people value more than once." At the time, Bezos hadn't said too much about his plans for the Post, although plenty of people had already weighed in on what he might do.

Since then, Bezos has met with the staff of the Post, offering a vision of its future that has been widely reported by those attending the meetings. At one point Bezos asked, "[H]ow do we get back to that glorious bundle that the paper did so well?", a question that prompted a critique from Timothy B. Lee, who "writes about the economics of technology" for the Post. In Lee's view:

No matter how good your news organization is, most of the best journalism is being done somewhere else. That's because no publication, even storied outlets such as the New York Times or The Washington Post, can hope to hire a majority of the world's most talented journalists. And this is why the smartest readers have increasingly eschewed "bundled" news outlets in favor of third-party aggregators that provide them with links to the best news from around the Web.

While I agree that publishers of all types are increasingly required to "disaggregate supply", I'm not sure that this means the "glorious bundle" is extinct. You just want that bundle to be an option, not the screen for all decisions about the content you create and the way that you maintain it.

I also think we need to challenge assumptions about what data may be telling us. A Pew Research Center survey, released last week, indicated that the so-called Millennials (18 – 31 years old) and Gen X-ers (32 to 47 years old) are spending significantly less time each day following the news. The conclusion:

Today’s younger and middle-aged audience seems unlikely to ever match the avid news interest of the generations they will replace, even as they enthusiastically transition to the Internet as their principal source of news.

As is the case with "bundles", there's an alternate, untested way to look at this: the generations that grew up or were "born" digital may be much more efficient in their sourcing of news. It could be that they want to be better informed than their elders; they just want to get there quickly and reliably.

Lee argues that younger readers use Facebook and Twitter to filter their content selection, and he may be right. That got me wondering if the behaviors we see now are just a stop-gap use of available tools, a bit of improvisation to help millennials deal with what could be an industry-wide case of "format failure".

Three years ago I wrote that "publishers will distinguish themselves if they can provide readers with tools that draw upon context to help them manage abundance". I'm sure those tools are not format-specific. The success of general platforms like Facebook and Twitter may be an aberration, not proof that the aggregator always wins.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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