Apr 12, 2009

Web 2.0 and the News - Allow me to Grieve

Caveat right upfront: I'm a news junky, and my favorite way to start a day is at my local coffee shop with at least three newspapers of varying slants and orientations. (Lately many of them are delivered directly to my new Kindle 2, a wondrous distribution innovation.) I like diversity of view, vetted reporting, checked sources, and provocative angles. It seems I'm in a rapidly shrinking niche minority. I am concerned that quality news information is in jeopardy, and don't believe that's a good thing.

A quick digression for context. I have written much about the perils of private label programs for gross margin-seeking retailers unable to differentiate the customer's experience in their outlets. It all seems so easy - find a low-cost global source, knock off the independent brand, create a few forecasts and voila - we're in the money. Right?

Maybe. It seems that consumers like the prices, but also are concerned with quality. Is the grocer doing as much as possible to ensure that the products being shipped to them by long-distance overseas contract manufacturers of peanut butter are salmonella-free? Can consumers be confident that fantastically low prices don't mean corner-cutting lead paint in toys? Maybe not.

Here's the rub: when you add in all the agency costs of expat salaries for quality control supervisors, higher quality contract manufacturers, product design and management, recall expenses, reassurance advertising, logistics and handling supervision, refrigerated warehousing, and the like, it's not always clear that private label is really more profitable for the retailer. Or better for the consumer.

So back to the news. The alternative to traditional newspaper-style media is Web 2.0 news. The wonders of mass market wikipedia-style aggregation of individual consumers' blogs and opinions, along with headline snippets. Well I'm all for the democratization of information, but there comes a time when I would like a WSJ or NYT editor on the case looking over the shoulder of an experienced and trained journalist. Do I really care what Johnny from Des Moines thinks about the riots in Bangkok?

I remember years ago asking a friend of mine who was a highly successful writer and producer for Cheers, Frazier, and others what he thought of the then new explosion of capacity offered by the 500 channel cable system. His answer was prescient for anyone who scans the current lineup: "500 channel capacity does not mean there's enough talent to fill it with material people will want to watch".

Web 2.0 news runs the risk of being nothing more than low-quality, inexpensive private label news. But definitely worth what you pay for it.

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