Is news fungible?

British journalist Charles Arthur's post "Newspapers: why fungibility means they’re really really really really really REALLY screwed" shines a light on a basic disconnect between reality and the center of gravity in American journalism.

Well, two disconnects.

One is that mentioning "fungibility" sends about half of American journalists scurrying to look it up in a dictionary or perhaps on Google. Hey, if you're going to be a writer you should know and understand words like fungibility, granularity, and my personal pet peeve, taxonomy.

But the bigger disconnect is a deep-seated belief that news is not a fungible commodity.

And that belief becomes even more deeply rooted as newspapers refocus on local coverage, dropping content that is obviously available everywhere on the Internet.

"Our content," many say, "is unique and not available anywhere else on the Internet."

While that may be true from the content provider's viewpoint, it misses a larger issue: What value do consumers get from your news? Can they get it elsewhere?

Why do people consume news, anyway? There are a lot of reasons, and while "I want to be well-informed on matters of civic importance in my community" may be an important one for some people, it's really not a major driver of news consumption in the big picture.

Consider some others, in no particular order:

  • Reading the news is a pleasant and entertaining activity.
  • It gives me something to talk about at lunch with my coworkers.
  • While reading the paper, I discover what's on sale at my local stores.
  • Sometimes I see stuff about people I know.
  • I want to feel like I'm part of a community.

When you begin to look at it through the eyes of a consumer, you discover there are ways of obtaining that value other than by reading your local newspaper, print or online.

This is the real challenge facing newspapers: You're not competing on the basis of whether you have unique news. You're competing with the entire world on the basis of the value that consumers get out of your product.

Pleasant and entertaining activities? They abound. Something to talk about? It's everywhere. Discovering what's on sale at local stores? Besides radio and several dozen cable channels, there's also the big box store's website, where their whole weekly sales circular is reproduced online.

People I know? Facebook. Feel like a part of a community? Ditto.

I'm not saying there's no market for what newspapers do. What I'm saying is that the breadth and scale of competition is far greater than most journalists imagine. For most of the points of consumer value that you might name for "news," there are alternative sources. And that gets us back to fungibility.

The problem of fungible commodities is that open markets relentlessly drive prices down toward the cost of production.

You want profit margins? Look for scarcity.

Where can scarcity be found? Here's one hint: Time. Your ability to compete may turn out to depend on your ability to arrange, organize and prioritize on behalf of every individual user. Do you know of any websites that do a good job of that?


This also suggests that perhaps we're looking at the wrong metrics when it comes to our Web sites. Things like "time spent," with a more-is-better orientation, completely miss the point that many people come to a Web site to get something done quickly and efficiently. Lots of time spent could indicate they were not successful -- but of course we don't know; we haven't asked. What would happen if instead we were able to design a metric for a "successful visit?" Anyone working on that?

From my perspective, 'fungible' is one of those words that, when used by a blogger, identified him as on the inside of the right-wing discussion circles (another such word is 'risible', used frequently by right-wing bloggers among themselves).

Steve, excellent points. I think we may finally be getting to the root of the problem with thoughts like these. @Elaine: The sand shifts under our feet quickly. Pageviews used to matter, then it was, for some, time on site. I think you are absolutely right--a long time on site can mean failure or it can mean success. As far as measuring successful visits, I believe one way to start getting at that is to use a tool akin to Google Analytics, which lets you define and classify paths through your site--things like registration, purchases, or even reading an article after going to the home page, can all be tracked and measured. So yes, there are ways to track visits at that level. The question is, how many people have sites where a successful visit (for the user) is aligned with revenue-generation? Answer: very few; Google is one. For a better understanding of why interest and intent are not the same thing, I highly recommend this article by Andrew Chen:

"a long time on site can mean failure or it can mean success."


As I mentioned on Twitter this morning, I have some horror stories about how metrics can lead us astray. Here is one.

When I was at Cox Interactive, a major focus was building local website directories. We measured pageviews of directory pages. We did a redesign. Directory pageviews skyrocketed.

We celebrated!

Then we did a usability test. And we discovered that users were mistaking our website directory paths for content navigation. They were following links, expecting to find quality content on OUR sites, but suddenly found themselves on some horrible "personal web page" (this was before the blogging era). Usually the page featured jumping frogs and background music, stuff that makes Myspace look like a model of minimalist design.

And the users, at that point, were shouting profanities at the screen.


But I'm not talking about saving the reader's time. I'm talking about spending the journalist's time. A select few readers might pay for special access to and interaction with their favorite journalist. That interaction builds trust, and my sense is that trust between journalist and reader is a potentially great place to monetize real-live human benefits like "I want to feel like I'm part of a community" and "Reading the news is a pleasant and entertaining activity" among others. I explain it all here: The problem with news as an economic good, btw, is far worse than just that it is fungible. It's also an experience good in the jargon, meaning that a user can't judge the quality of an article without actually reading it. It's also a non-durable good, which makes it critically different from the songs that iTunes can sell profitably. As information, news is also a non-rivalrous and non-excludable good (or a public good), so my consumption of an article doesn't prevent yours and vice versa.