Why quality journalism is winning

It was an epiphany: On the list of most read stories on nytimes.com during the last week of January, number one and three were thoroughly researched and expertly edited, and they were long — 5000+ words. These articles about how Apple’s remarkable success is tightly interwoven with the evolution of a global economy are examples of top-class journalism. But stories like these aren’t supposed to make it to the top of the web’s most-read lists, even on a highbrow website. So what’s going on here?

I noticed these stories first on the New York Times’ free Android app. Then I saw them tweeted and retweeted; it was clear they were being shared and recommended, driving readers in cascades to the articles (maybe the NY Times people could share the traffic data?) Recommending and sharing has a social logic* that may well have played a part in the stories’ success. When you recommend something to your friends, followers, circles or whatever, it reflects back on you. If you want to belong to the group of people who consider themselves enlightened citizens, politically aware, curious, discerning, and even with good taste, you recommend the investigation of working conditions producing the iPad, not the latest paparazzi scoop (in this case, it didn’t hurt that the imagined recipient of the recommendation would indeed be reading the article on an… iPad).

On a structural level, we might be witnessing the well-known circulation spiral effect, but now on an international scale. In its original version, the theory claims that in a competition between two newspapers, over time the bigger one gains more and more of the advertising market, making it able to invest in quality journalism. The smaller newspaper gradually loses its share of the ad market, the quality declines, and often it eventually will fold. In the digital market(s), there are x competitors. But it appears that size and quality matters here as well. The NY Times and others are able to reinvent themselves digitally while keeping the printed newspaper going as main source of revenue for as long as possible, financing increasingly attractive digital content across platforms. Buoyed by the combination of what The Economist Group’s CEO terms “the mega-trend of mass intelligence”, and the recommendation effect, this strategy might well succeed.

You guessed it, my second example of quality journalism winning is The Economist. Its audience is growing strongly. In the first half year of 2011 the weekly had close to 1,5 million subscribers and 100.000 digital subscribers. The large majority of the latter paid for the iPad app. The Economist now has a unique opportunity to invest in the quality of its content, reinforcing the positive spiral effect. Especially interesting is how the website is used to maintain and increase interest in the weekly edition. Keen users will have noted how several new blogs have strengthened both quality and interactivity. Essential ingredients here are that the blogs are authored by the magazine’s own writers and that they contain lots of original research and observations. This is more expensive than the more common model of having external bloggers contributing (often for free). However in-house bloggers makes it easier to ensure a consistent level of quality, and consistency with profile and brand values.

The Economist’s concept of quality journalism sets it apart from traditional thinking on the nature and value of news. By reading The Economist you expect to gain a better understanding of a topic. You do not expect to find the latest expose of some secret document. In fact, many of the articles are well-written and edited summaries, with an analytical edge, strictly speaking not news at all. Many old school news journalists would find that utterly meaningless, but it might be just what many readers need. Classic news stories have a very short halflife and are seldom very interesting to read — as texts. You probably will not recommend a typical news story of five paragraphs about working conditions in Guangzhou. But a broader analysis of how China’s labour market affects your country’s economy or an investigaton into how Apple is managing its supply chain, that’s something else.

*Thanks to Håvard for pointing out this dynamic to me.