Another quick hit, because I’m swamped with assignments right now.

Many newspaper/media analysts have eagerly seized upon the micro-commerce capabilities of mobile phones and devices like the Kindle as possible ways to get readers to pony up for their content. Steve Smith, the self-deprecating mobile industry analyst, has an insightful take on this issue over at Mobile Insider:

I think it is a mistake for media companie [sic] to think that putting the same old content into our pockets or “at our fingertips” is enough to merit a fee. They need to reimagine content as a service. That is a tremendous challenge/opportunity. It means that publishers have to think beyond the media and imagine how people put information to work (or to fun) in their everyday lives.

If a publisher can turn media into a utility, not just more data, then the rest of the argument about pay-to-play models on mobile make more sense. If there is something of value to buy on the mobile platform, then the built-in payment system, the always-there convenience, and the pay-to-play habits of mobile usage make a fee-based model workable for some. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful by-product of the mobile media evolution if it forced publishers to revisit and reimagine how and why their product makes our everyday lives better, easier, healthier, or more enjoyable? Content could have functionality. Media would be a service — not just, well, media.

The thinking on this is pretty terrifying to anyone hoping that the news business will be able to just point their CMS outputs at .mobi or m.[whatever] sites and go on their merry ways.  If what Smith says is true, the news business is going to have to get a lot more disciplined about packaging up the information and presenting it to the average time-starved reader in a way that is immeidately, recognizably useful.

This means that big, exhaustive, Pulitzer-bait investigative pieces that curmudgeons point at as the core business that can’t be replicated … are not going to be in the lifeboats that make it to Digital Refuge Island. Well, at least, not in the way that we’ve all come to expect. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about investigations lately, and I think they represent the best of traditional media … and the worst.  Yes, they are responsible for great, sweeping changes and for holding corrupt politicians, abusive bureaucracies and ugly social trends up into public view. 

But these investigations have become an industry unto themselves, and like many institutions these days, they function based upon their own internal logic, rather than upon what the external market/society need.  That is, the investigations are done in secrecy, over a long period of time, consume vast amounts of manpower, and are disgorged all in a huge tidal wave of text/photos.  All to an audience in which – according to readership surveys – 80% of the intended audience never skips past the first column of text on page one to dig into all this hard-won information.

If an investigation is published and nobody really pays attention, was it really worthwhile?  I can already hear the outraged screams in response to that question.

How about this: wouldn’t it be better to accomplish what a big investigation sets out to do – that is, to identify problems, focus in on miscreants and victims to breathe life into the story, suggest solutions, AND FOLLOW UP IN AN OLD-SCHOOL CRUSADE – in a way that readers actually pay attention to? 

One of the “ah-ha!” moments I’ve seen in the trainings we’ve done is when we talk to the ad/biz side, and ask them whether they think advertisers are buying column inches of ads – or if what they want is more customers walking into their stores.

This (buzzword alert) paradigm shift in the mission of newspapers has to have its own parallel epiphany over on the editorial side. 

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