The business rules of wedia (part the first)

It’s been a momentous week for what my pal Dan Michalski calls the New new new NEW Journalism — Backfence, YourHub and Neighbors all launched, showing the mainstream (or at least those in touch with the mainstream) are getting on the bandwagon. AP picked up that Craig Newmark is interested in news. Craig shared some good and cogent thoughts on same.

This led me to a weekend of soul-searching. (In fairness, it probably started midweek with this obscenely long and convoluted post.) With so much going on in this arena, what does our merry little band, still gathering data and raw materials have to contribute?

For better or worse, I’m an entrepreneur who looks at things from an operating perspective. We might have a great conceptual idea, but I’d never pitch it unless there was what I believed was a business model attached. That may be a liability, as some great ideas get launched and find their business model later.

But we’ve been studying this with an eye towards what would make a sizable scalable business — and our plan continues to evolve on that point. Through this exercise, I’ve come up with a set of broad rules for what we think will make such an enterprise fly. There’s lots of logistical shades of gray in there, but these would be the core business concepts:

The local/hyperlocal citizens news business should:

  • Provide the same or better quality, regularity and consistency as a traditional news business.
  • Put citizen journalists and professional journalists in the same environment, playing by the same rules, and with the same level of respect. The only differentiator should be that the one is performing journalism as a career; the other as an interest. And that one differentiator should be transparent, but not distracting.
  • Give the customer the same or fewer distinct sources to have to read on a daily basis as before you existed. Every click or separate print edition is an additional source.
  • Make it easier for the customer to find both what they’re looking for and also for those serendipitous discoveries that unexpectedly draw them closer to their community.
  • Provide content in the format that is most convenient for the customer, not for most convenient for you.
  • Reliably provide every customer something new of interest multiple times per day.
  • Realize that the customer, not the editor, decides what is news to them. Report on a big sale (that is really a big sale, and not a marketing ploy) with the same level of care as a triple homicide or mayoral election.
  • Primarily create content that wouldn’t exist if your business didn’t.
  • Deliver content that your customers need, whether you created it or not. And don’t waste resources recreating something just to be proprietary about it.
  • Help customers create and distribute content that they’re passionate about. Help connect them to an audience. Pay people to produce content that is important to the community but is either too resource-intensive or unsexy for it to be created out of pure passion.
  • Don’t edit, which implies keeping items out of play. But don’t use that as a cynical excuse to be neglectful of quality. Curate. Help customers find what they want and need. Make them heroes. Help them kick ass.
  • Provide fewer, more relevant ads. Be big enough that you can provide ads relevant to any customer. Do such a good job that the customers think of the ads as content.
  • Do all of the above, reliably, all day every day.
  • Make a realistic, but impressive profit margin.

That’s the strawman as of today. I’m sure we’ll add to it. I’m fairly sure that we won’t delete. But the rest, as they say, is just details.

I don’t know of any news company or product out there that covers all these bases yet. But that’s what we’re going to try to do.

UPDATE: Steve Outing has some thoughts akin.

Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.