The key to keeping a competitive advantage in news is to think about milk. Yup, the white stuff at the supermarket.
Here’s why: milk is a commodity. In economic terms, a commodity is something people will choose based purely on price. It is available from many different sources, and what is in the bottle is the same, regardless of what that source might be.
Sadly, information can also be a commodity. And, for most information, the lowest price is free.
(Just think about that often-misquoted phrase: “Information wants to be free” … the real phrase by Stewart Brand goes like this: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it is so valuable … On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.” Everyone seems to forget that whole “expensive” piece. But I digress.)
So, how do you get people to pay a premium for a commodity? Let’s look at that dairy aisle to find out.
If you head to the grocery store and the one thing you were looking for was 2 percent milk, then when you walk up to that daunting wall-o-cow-juice, you will turn your eyes to one thing and one thing only – the price.
If all you want is 2 percent milk, then you are not going to buy the expensive name brand with the pretty picture of the cow. You are going to buy milk, and you are going to buy it cheap.
But there is a selection there at the dairy aisle.
Surely it isn’t there as some obscure modern art piece. People must be buying all different kinds of milk in order to justify its spot on that oh-so-valuable grocery store shelf.
How, then, can grocers ask you to pay different prices when you are essentially getting the same exact thing just in different bottles?
The grocer does it by offering something that you can’t get in that generic bottle. In the case of the brand name, you are buying a story. You are buying image. You are buying status – even if it is just a status that you hold in your own mind.
To you, the story that begins with you buying milk that is 20 percent more expensive ends with you being a better parent or a wealthy person, or however your version of the story goes. You pay for the best milk after all.
The thing is, most people don’t care about THAT story. So, they grab the generic milk.
But if you look closer at the milk aisle, there is more there. There are other tricks to get you to pay more for milk. As you look up on the higher shelves, you see different kinds of milk that appeal to different people and that, most importantly, are not available in generic.
You have soy and organic. But now even those are becoming commoditized. So, now you have almond and acidophilus, and even hyper local milk that fits into our new narrative about who we are.
You even have other things that are made out of milk but are not the actual commodity – cheese, yogurt, whipping cream, butter.
So, what does this have to do with news and the business of journalism?
We need to learn how to take our product – news, information, entertainment and community resources – and we need to package them so we are not lumped in with the commodities of BuzzFeed and the click-bait digital sweatshops.
We need to find new and different ways to tell our stories that may not be the traditional forms of news.
What does news yogurt look like? We better find out if we want a future for our industry.
We need to get up on that higher shelf. Information is only valuable if it is scarce – that is, rare and desired.
Some news outlets can do this by being hyper local. Others do this by specializing in a niche area. Still others do it by commenting on the news with comedy, snark or pundit-fueled yelling.
The bottom line is that the profitable news outlets are the ones that are reporting on news and information that they are able to create better than anyone else in the world. And they are also choosing to cover areas and topics that have interested and engaged audiences.
Their product is not a commodity. It is scarce – rare and valued.
They moved up onto the top shelf. Now they need to just figure out how to actually get paid.