The value of scoops vs. collaboration

Steve Baker laments that he could not blog to the world about the gigantic Business Week cover story on math that he has been working on for months. It frustrated him not being able to talk about what was consuming his days because Steve is now living the transparent lifestyle. I know, because Steve told me about it over lunch but swore me to secrecy until the thing was out. And knowing Steve, I’m sure it also frustrated him that he could not tap the knowledge and generosity of his readers and fellow bloggers — and there are, no doubt, plenty of amazing mathematicians among them who could have enriched the story and even enlarged the audience. (And I’m not one of them.)

So I’m about to say something patently naive but I say it to raise a question:

Is it better for Steve and Business Week to have held back their story from public view until it was packaged and polished and delivered in print, or to have sought out the best advice on it from an informed public by seeking collaboration via Steve’s blog as the story was being formed? Which produces a better product and a better business?

Of course, the magazine vets would say that they could not possibly let the world know about such a megastory because then the competitors would steal the scoop. How silly of me even to ask. But what competitors: US Weekly? And if Fortune came along and did its mondomath story, at least colleagues in the business would know it was a ratty thing to do, stealing from Steve’s blog, indicating they didn’t have ideas of their own.

If publications shared what they were working on and if the practice succeeded in improving stories — and, indeed, in drumming up excitement for them — then they’d all end up doing this and all would fear being stolen from. Honor among hacks.

: The bigger question is whether there is value left in the scoop. As good as it is, will that math story really drive extra newsstand sales (no matter how much Steve tried to get them to sex it up)?

Or is the essence of a magazine — and its strength in a world where content has been dethroned by connections — that it is about an ongoing relationship with a public that shares interests? Obviously — except for the aforementioned US and other outlets of bodily fluids journalism — I’d vote for the latter. Perhaps it is better to create the means for that community of shared interests, needs, and expertise to improve stories and gain and share knowledge. Perhaps it is better to make magazines less of a product and more of a process, less of a subscription to a thing and more of a membership to a community. Stop me before I go too far. Oh, too late.

: Now let’s ask, what is the value of the scoop in the more timely media of newspaper and broadcast? Do scoops really drive the business? Or do they stoke the ego? Here, too, I’ll vote for the latter. Now you could argue that in this marketplace, where Google kills brands and levels the content playing field, it’s more necessary than ever to have the scoops and exclus and stars that separate you from the pack. Except I’m not sure they do separate you. My wife reads newspapers and magazines far more loyally and diligently than I do and she remembers every fascinating thing she finds … except she never remembers where she reads the stories she repeats because that matters only to me, not to her. My mother used to quote stories to me that she’d read in the Chicago Tribune, when we all lived there — even when I had written them. Bylines and scoops and exclus are not worth as much as we assume they are.

: I just came back from the Online Publishers Association confab, where I spoke at the end, and I said that we waste too much resource and money on ego: on having our own movie critic, though the movies are the same everywhere and the opinions that matter are those of the audience; on having our own golf writer go to the tournament far away, though the score is the same as the one reported hours before on TV; on sending our own political pundits to the political conventions, when nothing happens there.

And perhaps holding back stories like that Business Week cover also carries a price. Perhaps involving the public of interested and expert people will bring more knowledge to the story and to the community gathering around that formerly print brand. And perhaps that community will help market itself, linking to the discussion and the story to tell people who wouldn’t have otherwise cared that Business Week has a story about math that will interest them; perhaps that’s the real newsstand bump you want.

As the news industry faces huge business challenges and the urgent need to find new efficiencies, one of the questions it has to ask is what the real value — and cost — of scoops, exclus, stars, and secrecy are. Or to put it another way: How much are we investing in institutional — and often, personal — ego that should be invested in better information and stronger relationships?

: LATER: Little did I know that this also applies to the Philippine energy sector.