What do they want? And where's the money?

In an interview with the American Press Institute, 2008-2009 Reynolds Fellow Bill Densmore outlines four things digital news consumers want, what the media ecosystem will look like in five years, what news consumers will pay for and what platform they might use.

1. What do digital consumers want?

Digital consumers want four things:

TRUSTWORTHINESS: The Internet offers access to information from anywhere. But can you rely upon it to make critical life decisions? It's for this reason that some of the most trusted brands in traditional media have successfully ported to the Web and why local newspapers — for their traditional constituencies at least — can also port their core service — trustworthiness — to the Web, whatever the product.

ACCESS: With nearly unlimited information on the Web, the biggest challenge is finding what you need when you need it. The first paradigm for meeting this challenge has been search. But search is only one method of discovery. In addition, as deep and wide as is the content well of the Internet, much more information is still not accessible. This other well — perhaps larger than the Web today — includes information in a challenging, complicated or proprietary format, or information for which the owner demands compensation. Such information is either invisible, or just not on the Web at all. An element of access is bringing that information to the Web through better discovery tools and through a mechanism for sharing its value with users.

CONTROL: One of the simplest human desires is to feel in control of our surroundings and civic space. We may willingly surrender that control for other values, but we want that to be our choice. Digital consumers are no different. And that means we want control over our personal "persona" and the data that we share across the Web. Respect for that simple human desire is evident in the evolution of privacy policies at Facebook and Twitter. A fundamental digital right has to be absolute control over your personal data - including its portability and permanence (or lack thereof), and the ability to change it when you want and how you want.

VALUE: In his book about the building of Visa, Dee Hock called what we know of as a credit-card company "the world's largest system for the exchange of value." It may be that the word exchange is as important as the word value in that context. Because value is not assigned by one party; it's the result of an equitable negotiation, a sharing, among parties. Consumers flock to value, whether it's the chance to search what was initially a disorganized wilderness (InfoSeek/Yahoo/Google), a way to post personal photos and videos (Flickr/YouTube), a way to share personal stories (Facebook), or flash the latest insights (Twitter).

2. Where's the money?

See the answer above. It's in the controlled discovery and sharing of value, or in our context, valuable, trustworthy information that improves living.

3. What kinds of content are consumers willing to pay for?

This question is framed too narrowly. What is the experience users are willing to pay for? Information is not a product. It's not a story, a photograph, a video. Information only has value when it conveys or leads to knowledge. So providing tools for knowledge discovery is a service. Some services consumers are likely to pay for include:

  • Public or non-proprietary information discovered or collected in new and insightful ways that lead to unexpected insight or knowledge.
  • Services that deepen relationships, make our day go faster or more easily, or give us exclusive or empowering knowledge.
  • Services that allow us to make money or save money.

4. We've heard a lot lately about e-readers like the Kindle and apps on smart phones. What digital delivery platforms look most promising?

I answer this informed by my own experience. I don't think we've seen the killer platform yet. It's something between the Kindle and the iPhone. It's in color and it's flexible enough to be shoehorned into a bag or briefcase. The screen size is less important than what you can do with it. It has to be effectively always on and always, always, always, connected. It needs to combine e-mail with the web with the ability to write or type. It understands speech and it speaks.

5. What will the media ecosystem look like in five years?

The notion of publisher may seem anachronistic in five years. In the last millennium, publishers aggregated information products and controlled their distribution in the marketplace. InfoValets will aggregate users. Publishers will be much smaller and "nichier," and marketplaces more distributed. The migration path for today's publishers is to learn how to make money presenting users with information from anywhere, whether the publisher owns it or not. And the publishers who become InfoValets and learn how to share value and values with users will find themselves at the center of open marketplaces controlled by consumers where much value is profitably exchanged. All that's needed for this ecosystem to emerge is a technical platform for exchanging value in information commerce.

This interview is the fourth in a series of conversations with five media executives who shared their deep knowledge and expertise at API's Newsmedia Economic Action Plan Conference in September. The program addressed one of the most critical issues facing the news industry: generating revenue from online content. The conference was based on the Institute's Newsmedia Economic Action Plan, an integrated five-point plan to guide the news industry through the current disruptions and position it for the future.


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