Fungibility, according to Wikipedia, is an economic term used to describe the property of a commodity whereby it is directly interchangeable with something else. For example, if you don’t care whether the rental car you get is a Mercedes or a BMW, then they are fungible. It was used by journalist Stijn Debrouwere in an awesome article about the future of newspapers and media companies in the age of the Internet, by calling his article –
A treatise on fungibility, or, a framework for understanding the mess the news industry is in and the opportunities that lie ahead.
The article, pointed in my direction by GigaOm, talks about an interesting situation about the news industry – that newspapers are being replaced by something completely different than online newspapers. They are being replaced by sites and services that have nothing to do with the news, or journalism as such. Sites like CraigsList, Gawker, Byliner and IMDB are replacing individual sections of the newspapers and there’s not much the newspaper can do about that.
To understand this, let’s look at what a newspaper is. It’s made up of various sections and those are – National/International news on the front page (reddit, iGoogle, Yahoo’s Homepage replaced this), local news and information (Pinwheel, Facebook, Foursquare replaced that), Entertainment (OMG, what hasn’t replaced this? YouTube, TMZ, various fashion blogs, Engadget), Sports(twitter. Seriously, twitter has replaced this), Comics (webcomics, here you stand united), ads(are everywhere on the Internet and also on CraigsList, which deserves special mention), Editorials (?).
Now, the quick newspaper reader looks at headlines, ads, sports and entertainment and all of those are covered by services I listed above. This means the core of how the newspaper earns money is gone. What’s left is the Editorial. I’ve left a question mark there because a lot of companies have tried to become the online thought leaders, the OpEd page of the Internet and it invariably fails. Byliner came up with an excellent model – charge small amounts of money to people interested in reading good stories. But they were nearly out of business when someone acquired them. The Magazine, an interesting attempt to conquer the attention span of geeks and non-geeks alike failed and is ceasing publication soon. Medium has, of late, done a really good job of being the Editorial destination of the Internet, but they’re opening it up to everyone, which will invariably lead to a decline in overall quality.
The solution, at this point is unclear – editorial-only publications have failed, trashy listicle sites are loved as a time pass but hated as serious news (BuzzFeed, anyone?), there have been some wins for Internet journalism on both sides – startups and newspapers going online (I’ve talked about Quartz and their take on journalism before) have both had some wins and some losses. But one thing is clear – newspapers are not just fighting online news any more. They are fighting everything that catches the user’s eye. Any website or service that gets eyeballs means less attention paid towards the news. This is specially true for sybaws (smart-young-bored-at-work) since they look towards the Internet as a distraction (and so, why would they read serious journalism, they’ll read BuzzFeed).
But there’s no need to dispair. As the Internet-always generation comes of age, they’ll ask for serious journalism, they’ll ask for editorials and be willing to pay for them. They’ll need a view of the day’s news before they start the day. Perhaps that’s where online newspapers will flourish. Facebook, Yahoo, iGoogle could never capture people’s attentions for everything from social to personal to political because of perceptions – if I’m going to my social network site, why would I want all my news there or if I’m reading a funny listicle, why would I need news about terrorism on the same page? But that’s not true for newspapers – we know they do everything. So here’s my advice – built platforms online. Build communities that interact with you, that value the information you put out, whether it be local ads or opinion pieces on international issues. Be the CraigsList+Twitter+Medium+Dilbert for someone. People are bound to find value in that. But don’t just put everything analog online, think about what the entire direction will be. Sit back and think; that’s what you folks are good at! Heck, acquire a few companies you like, that shouldn’t just be the birthright of tech giants.
Because if you don’t, you’ll be fungible with just about any information dissemination website out there, even if it’s a one page list of daily news items.