We are witnessing, we hope, a Renaissance of Journalism through the growing competition between heavily trafficked web sites to provide more and better original content. More and more the pillars of the “new media” community have begun to seek out quality content they can call their own and therefore use to attract and keep audience on all their platforms, from the web to cell phones to tablets.But there is still a serious hole in the strategy we see unfolding from this new generation of journalism, including megasites like Yahoo and AOL, and Google, but including literally millions of bloggers and targeted sites. While they are to be commended for going beyond just aggregation and moving toward the more expensive world of becoming original content creators, almost to the site they are making the same mistake. While they are hiring reporters and other content creators, they have ignored the need for solid editorial leadership and management. Where are the future Ben Bradlee’s (Legendary Washington Post Editor) and Don Hewitt’s (the late Founder and Executive Producer of 60 minutes) of the digital world? Where is the new media version of Time Founder Henry Luce, who began by writing a manifesto about how his new magazine, Time, would change and improve journalism.?
Great media businesses of the past flourished because they showed great vision and executed on that vision with talented people. The truly great media institutions had as many editors and people involved in presentation of content as they did content creators and/or gatherers. The best assignment and story editors spent time with reporters, guiding them and making their stories better and better. And teaching them what was good and bad in what they had done. The great news editors not only helped decide WHAT got covered, but also what kind of presentation a story deserved, how it should be illustrated and supported and in what context it should be presented. They were, in effect, the early curators of content for the reader/viewer on all previous media platforms, from print to radio to TV.
Because of their previous incarnations as aggregators (aggregationists?) most of the new media businesses, like the portals and even the Huffington Posts didn’t understand the true value of editors and producers to the editorial process. Because their value isn’t obvious to the outsider who doesn’t understand how a news story or a news product comes together and the thinking process that occurs around how it should be presented, many new media companies just took shortcuts to get to the point where they could look like a legitimate news operation.
In the beginning, that meant just aggregating news from other sources. Then many moved to more original content by assembling bloggers who worked for free, some of whom had reputations in their worlds, even if not as journalists. But by associating with people of reputation, some of that reputation accrued to the site. So Huffington Post drew people who knew the names of many of their bloggers, including Arianna. And that site was born with an attitude….hers. So it was easy to understand.
Other targeted content businesses, like Seeking Alpha, were formed around the unpaid blogs of money people who had reputations to start with, either as investors or even journalists. All were, and are, unpaid.
Yahoo, AOL and Google were actually proud of their status as aggregators and sought to preserve that status so as to allow them, in some cases, to do financially attractive deals with content providers to get their content on the portal site, in exchange for both money and traffic the portal might send to the home site of the partner.
Now Yahoo and AOL are in a race to see who can add more original content. They are developing very different products but they have taken off in the same direction. Even Google is bringing on more content people to help them intelligently present what they are aggregating through search. And, they are starting to display content as seen through the filters of various outside editorial influences. By showing the top stories according to one news or commentary site, for example, they are acknowledging that there is an important skill set that they don’t possess.
Therein lies the rub. Almost none of these sites have built a true journalistic infrastructure, with a powerful editorial voice at the top and a collective group of people who both worry continuously about how their content is being presented and who lead the army of reporters down their many paths with critical review and the benefit of experience. Together, these forces create journalistic greatness. Content must be gathered AND edited AND presented by people who have all of those skills.
To be sure, some of the new media players are getting this. The Huffington Post now has an army of journalists, including editors, behind the scenes. The Daily Beast has a healthy dose of every level of journalist from reporter to editor. Politico and Jim Brady’s new local site for Allbritton are staffing up. My old site, Marketwatch.com has always valued and staffed up with editors.
But many of the today’s hottest “new media” sites are often rooms packed full of talented and hungry bloggers who get little or no editorial leadership. And sometimes what they produce is naive and even wrong. It’s not necessarily their fault. Often, no one with experience is watching or helping.
Sometimes filters can be good. Great Leadership is ALWAYS good. But it costs money. And like so many things, when it comes to seeking greatness in the long-term you need to spend money to make money, even if the return for some of that spending isn’t that obvious right away. Find great journalistic visionaries and put them at the top of these businesses.