Sorry, but a lot of good content is indeed scarce

I always read Jeff Jarvis’ Buzz Machine because it has great links and deals with things I’m interested in, like how journalists are going to make a living online. I also get a kick out of his sometimes over-the-top opinions, even when they leave me scratching my head.

I was, for example, completely bewildered by this missive about the New York Times, in which he called About.com, where he used to consult, “about the only bright spot” on the Times‘ profit and loss statement. “Engrave this line on (your) tombstone,” Jarvis ranted while quoting a passage from a Times editorial that made perfect sense to me:

The strategic challenge for newspapers is not cutting costs, but how to attract a larger share of online advertising and make money off the millions of people who read them free online.

“They wish,” Jarvis raved on:

That has long been the cry of editors of papers including the Times: preserving their newsrooms as they operate now, protecting their ways. But they keep ignoring the obvious fact that most newspapers operated as uniquely profitable media monopolies but those days are clearly over. The internet is a highly competitive market where prices and margins simply will not match print — though audience size is greater. They also keep ignoring the obvious opportunities presented by the networked internet to operate more efficiently and also more broadly (start here and here as well as here).

I think Jarvis mixes up a whole lot of stuff here. You’d have to be a complete fool to deny that attracting more online advertising is not important. And equating anyone who makes this point with a dinosaur just trying to preserve the old ways is silly. After all, if Jarvis thinks About.com is so great at making money from web publishing, why shouldn’t the New York Times — with its far more powerful brand, archives and content expertise be even more successful?

Because it pays people too much? Has too much fat in the newsroom? Put the third string on the web team? Failed to innovate in the face of a revolution it didn’t see coming?

Frankly, I think the last two reasons are far more important than the first two. And while just about every web-savvy media exec is certainly kicking themselves over the lost opportunities of the past decade, it’s still not too late. While Jarvis has argued in the past that, as far as content is concerned, we live in “a post-scarcity era” (see the Long Tail), I don’t think that’s entirely true. How else to explain the success of About.com and its continued expansion? While there’s no content shortage for great political and other types of commentary on the web, it’s still a vast sinkhole for a lot of stuff.

Let’s look at a local news example — and I’m not talking overhyped hyperlocal either.

We’ve had one of the snowiest winters in Montreal in years and everyone’s talking about it. After the first storm, I read the local English paper, the Montreal Gazette, which I do perhaps 10 times a year. I was impressed. It had good coverage of the city’s snow removal operations and fun stories on the best shovels and what to do when your neighbour dumps his snow on your lawn, etc. Those stories are now behind an inaccessible archive wall. And no news organization in town has set up a snow page with historical info., snow clearing updates, fun photos and video and reader input — on an ongoing story, where user generated content would likely have a huge appeal. If I google Montreal snow, these are the results on the winter’s biggest local story:

Pretty useless. An old story from the CBC on the first storm of the year, which, several storms later, is ancient history, and a guy from Chicago’s blog. That top spot should be filled with a news organization’s well-organized snow page, which would be a record of everything about the winter’s snowy weather.

So are the news organizations keeping the good stuff to themselves behind a wall? In the case of the Gazette, this winter’s older content is walled off and the fresh content is still available. But when you plug snow into the newspaper’s search box, all you get is an unattractive set of pre-Google era results.

So contrary to what Jarvis maintains, there is real news and information scarcity in certain local news areas (not to mention all the non-local stuff that About.com is currently targeting and much more) — and newspapers have the people with the skills to provide the information that readers want. I do, though, agree with a lot of the methodology he proposes– having gatherers and packagers — and the type of link-to-the-best-no-matter-who-has-it content solution he’s providing.

How many people are needed to produce this kind of top content remains up in the air because it’s never been done, but there’s no question full-time pros will be needed. While civilians will post fun snow photos on their blogs and write great rants about how their neighbour meticulously shovels only her half of the shared staircase while they always shovel the whole thing, they’re not going to interview the city officials in charge of icy sidewalks, or phone up the head of snow removal in Boston and ask about how they get things done, and then put it altogether in an attractive, readable, authoritative, in-depth package where everything about this snowy winter can be searched and accessed easily.

Right now, this snow site does not exist on the web so it’s scarce. Using some of the best techniques of About.com would certainly help newspapers, but reporters are the natural gathering experts and editors the packagers. They should be able to easily adapt to the new world and, if they can’t, accept the consequences.

As for how much people will be willing to pay to advertise on this type of content, that is also an unknown factor but I’m not sure why Jarvis is so convinced that “prices and margins will simply not match print.” For now, they don’t, but who’s to say that in the future they won’t? And even if they never do, newspapers that go completely online will have no more distribution and printing costs.