Snarky Behavior

On Man Dates and Print Media

June 20, 2007 · Leave a Comment

Man Date Photo from New York Times.

NPR has a great podcast on the concerted effort of print/online media outlets to introduce “conceptual scoops” as conversation pieces in the public forum.

What is a conceptual scoop? Washington Post managing editor Phil Bennett describes it as the following:

“A smart story often does contain new facts, but just as often it takes facts that are lying in plain sight and synthesizes them, or arranges them in a way — sometimes in a narrative — that really exposes some new meaning on an important subject.

It’s another form of competitive journalism. People who can arrive first at the defining nature of a conceptual scoop — of telling you, ‘Here’s what these sets of facts mean’ — oftentimes control the agenda of the discussion of that subject.”

To me, this is freaking brilliant, even if it is just slapping a label on an emerging trend. Let me explain through a brief history of what got us here:

Cable news networks changed the concept of news reporting by disregarding objectivity and offering predigested news, packaged with opinion, bias and editorials. Newspapers couldn’t adopt this approach because their content has traditionally been segregated by sections (News, Metro, Op-Eds, Sports, etc.)

This left a tremendous void in the marketplace of print news-media (which blogs subsequently filled). Think about it this way:

  1. Americans work a longer week (in terms of hours) and year (in terms of days) than any other industrialized country.
  2. Therefore, they place a premium on convenience, at the expense of quality (see: McDonalds).
  3. Cable news networks recognized this preference, and adjusted accordingly: presenting not only the news, but its logical interpretation.
  4. Newspapers couldn’t adjust, because they are restricted (by design) to maintain traditional reporting standards, segregating news from opinion.
  5. Blogs assumed the reactionary role of unpacking and de-constructing the news as presented by cable networks, as well as interpreting another independent version of the news, as reported by the traditional print media.

So this is the situation we currently find ourselves in. We’ve all read about how major news outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times are hemorrhaging money. Their logical assumption– that online subscriptions would replace print subscriptions– was false. Turns out people don’t like paying for content when they can get it for free(?) File under: lessons not learned from the music industry.

To survive, newspapers can go one of three ways:

  1. Continue the status quo, attempting to adopt popular components of new media such as interactive feature content and web-logs.
  2. Merge with the cable news networks, leech off the AP for content and strictly hire news analysts over reporters.
  3. Leverage the brand to generate feature news stories via narratives… the so-called “conceptual scoop.”

Now, I’ve written before about my concern over option 1. Certainly, interactive content is a necessity (and the New York Times has adopted it fairly well). But it’s not sufficient, at least not in and of itself.

Option 2 requires picking a bias, which segregates your audience… a dangerous move when you’re already losing readership. Plus, I’ve also written (on a facebook post) why it’s a poor idea to ideologically align your brand with a political party (ahem, Republicans), which are subject to mercurial swings in popularity. This is why Nike doesn’t sponsor, say, Dick Cheney, who is the only person in the world right now with lower popularity ratings than Kobe Bryant.

Option 3 is what we’re talking about: stories like the “Man Date” , a feature in the Fashion section of the New York Times, can generate water-cooler chatter to rival LOST and Grey’s. These kinds of stories, which offer insightful thinking pieces and encapsulate a broad segment of the news environment, are what bloggers LIVE for.

There’s no blogger out there who has the leverage to start a conversation piece on the same scale as the established outlets. I know I certainly don’t!*

Option 3 is not a perfect solution: it makes reporters search for an entertainment angle in every story (which 90% of the time ends up negative or pessimistic). But as long as news is consumed as a for-profit enterprise, “conceptual scoops” seem like the wave of the future.

*Although my readership has gone up significantly, and I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. Thanks guys! Keep it coming!

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