Saturday, August 8, 2009

Roger's rules of order on the Internet

These five basic standards of conduct may not guarantee financial success but will help avoid financial disaster and make the Internet a tool in our hands instead of our competitors'.

1. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I stole this from Zella Evans, the Post Register’s former Internet manager, and she had stolen it from a thousand others before her, going back at least to the Roman emperor Hadrian (who built his famous wall in northern Britain in a certain place instead of another because he decided to “exercise restraint” and go no farther in his conquests).

Newspapers began shoveling their content online, and then began creating content unique to the Web – all at no charge to the consumer – mostly because they could. Any thought to imagining the ultimate business model was shouted down by the majority of newspaper types who were convinced that charging for content online was old school, a remnant of dinosaur thinking that exposed the proponent as an unimaginative, stuck-in-the-(pick your pre-90s decade), unsophisticated troglodyte who would soon give way to the new generation of tech-savvy wunderkinds who didn’t need to have a business plan. This, I am shocked to report, was wrong. Shocked, I say.

2. Produce content with value (what we used to call “news”) and quantify that value by asking a fair price for it.

Some newspaper executives have decided to ask consumers if they would be willing to pay for news online, and they are being told “no.” If I walked into a shoe store and was asked if I’d prefer to pay for my shoes or get them free, I’d look for the “Punk’d” cameras. I’d also assume that any shoes being provided for free are pretty lousy shoes.

3. Use sound principles of journalism as your Great Differentiator. Yes, anybody can start a blog. (Heck, I’ve got five myself.) But bloggers aren’t trying to run a business that feeds hundreds of employees and their families, is a good corporate citizen, and makes the place they live better. Journalism matters, and it will set us apart from the rest of the Internet world.

In due time, even young information consumers will grow tired of reading blather, innuendo, vitriol, misinformation and speculation disguising itself as news. Until they do, adhering to journalistic principles will serve us well among those who understand their importance.

4. Incessantly educate anyone who will pay attention, even for a moment, about the difference between what we do and the other 99.9 percent of Internet “content” providers. Talk to the Rotary Club. Start a blog. Write a column in your paper. Spam other journalists. Write for E&P, AJR, CJR – heck, write for Ladies Home Journal if they’ll let you. Say it like you mean it, and say it over and over and over again. We are journalists. That’s a good thing that hasn’t gone out of fashion.

5. Experiment with business models. The Internet has changed everything. Classified as a cash cow is gone forever. Some young people will never adopt the newspaper habit. While the fundamentals of how we practice journalism shouldn’t change, the ways we disseminate it have changed forever. We must embrace that and continue searching for sustainable business models. They will emerge, if not now, then eventually. Meanwhile, we need to reshape our existing business model to allow us to bridge the gap between the old, print-only days and the current and future multiple-platform days. But let’s start by reasserting the value of our news (and by making damn sure that we’re actually producing something of value -- unique and compelling local news).

Then, let’s try stuff that has any hope of providing us with sustainable profits, even if those profits are lower than what they used to be. Margins in the 25, 30, 35 or 40 percent range were obscene, anyway, and were probably earned because we weren’t investing adequately in our future. As we experiment, let’s get into the habit of quickly discarding things that don’t work and giving promising projects the adequate time and resources to succeed. And, let’s not fool ourselves into believing that some models are working when they’re not by arbitrarily and artificially allocating revenue to them that they didn’t earn. (You know what I’m talking about.)

NOTE: I paid a licensing fee for the rights to use the cartoons on this blog entry.


  1. As a blogger I agree barriers to entry are low, which is why there are more blogs than the distance in miles a photon travels at the speed of light in one year. Hint - the number is too many zeros. On the other hand, blogs are great for digging into niche topics in ways that defy the economics of the news space advertising will permit in a daily edition. Like any medium, quality rises and junk just floats away.

  2. You were definitely ahead of your time.