A key question for the news industry – WWTD?

Stacked shelvesNever mind What Google Would Do?  If Tesco decided to go into the news business What Would Tesco Do?

Right now, somewhere in southern Spain a farmer is growing to order rows of lettuce to be harvested on a specific day and delivered to the shelf of a Tesco store which, typically, is within a few miles of your front door.

The logistics behind a modern supermarket are nothing short of miraculous – thousands of lines of produce brought in from all corners of the world to provide greater choice and greater variety than any generation has experienced before.

The internet has opened the door to similar abundance for news audiences and given easy access to newsmakers and thought-leaders across the globe.

Tesco tracks the shopping habits of more than 16m families through its loyalty card scheme. Each product sold is classified by data – a luxury item or a loss-leader, ethnic, exotic, own brand etc.

The data is filtered by a Tesco-owned search engine and the results help them decide what to sell and when. Tesco also has a nice, not-so-little, earner selling the data to other companies.

So if Tesco decided to go into the news business what would it do and what could it teach established players in the sector?

For sure big data would be a key part. Tesco’s data-miners would be drilling into consumption habits to try to build up a picture of an individual’s news needs.

Over weeks and months patterns of behaviour emerge.  What stories are they reading and when? In which parts of the world do their interests lie? How do the items break down by genre, or business, or team, or personality? Is there a skew towards politics and social issues or a deeper interest in health care? Is sport a priority or a turn-off? What topics find no favour – and why?

Just as Tesco knows from your shopping list whether you have a baby, or young children, or a dog or a cat, even if you’re a novice in the kitchen or an experienced cook, news consumption habits can reveal a lot about an individual.

They’d also be looking long and hard at the products being placed in front of the customer by both themselves and their rivals.

The not-for-profit Media Standards Trust is already in the data extraction business, producing Twitter factoids along the lines of:

Tristan McConnell (Times) has written more articles this month about the Rwandan election than anyone else

Andrew Anthony in the Observer wrote the longest article this week

– Lindsay Lohan has been written about 39% more than the European Parliament in the last week. Reasonable?

These snippets are mildly interesting, but the real value lies in the Trust’s wider aggregation and linkage of material.

Its site, Journalisted, aims to make it easier for people to find out more about journalists and the topics they tackle.

“Read all about them!” it declaims.

It makes it easy for the public to search for a journalist they want to contact, and to sign up for article alerts from their favourites. Journalists can also edit their own profiles within the site.

This kind of aggregation further cements the position of journalists as individual brands within a brand. Top columnists have always been that, of course, it’s now just a lot easier to see each person’s profile and the billboards for their bodies of work.

Whose stuff is flying off the shelves? What’s not moving?  Is expensive investigative journalism a required loss-leader to attract a different kind of clientele? Who’s providing the staples of everyday coverage on a particular reporting beat? And whose work ends up in the equivalent of the end-of-the-aisle bin?

It’s easy to see how this might lead to performance-related rewards, though the complexity of how to gauge influence and value against high-click popularity makes for odious comparisons.

We’re already seeing the emergence of low-pay article farms that generate content based on search term popularity; these are the snack-food purveyors of the business – consumed by millions but ultimately not very satisfying.

Influence metrics are where we will find the news equivalents of Jamie Oliver and  Gordon Ramsay – the star communicators who appeal to different demographics and sub-groups.

Might sites like Klout – which measure an individual’s online influence – have a bearing at future job interviews?

Tesco shelf space is a valuable commodity and brands which want to occupy part of a shelf, or get prime positioning, have to show they can earn their keep.

At the BBC, correspondents and specialists already have elevated status – though their branding and packaging may be ripe for a makeover.

You like Matt Frei’s work? Well here’s a shrine to the man. His complete works – his past and present columns, his broadcasts, his packages, his speaking engagements, his upcoming interviews, a photogallery, his biography, his book-reading list. His professional life, fully exposed to your gaze.

As consumers we have unprecedented levels of choice and, increasingly, future news grazing is going to be a pick-and-mix selection of the best, most trusted sources – and they’ll be different for everyone.

We value brands but we are also promiscuous with our favours. We want to flit between the best offers without having to do too much running around.

So what’s the future for news? Well, if media’s big brands are the equivalent of supermarkets then the BBC and New York Times become convenience stores where you can get most of what you need, in one place, in the least amount of time.

But the social media Ocado man, who delivers direct to your door and takes the chore out of shopping is a big new challenger.

Aggregators, specialist publications and bloggers are the farmers’ markets, delicatessens and quirky shops.

Even the slow food movement has its journalism equivalent in people like Nicholas Carr who want to ratchet down the flow of information in favour of a less frenetic, more considered view.

The competition in this mixed news economy will be fierce, and data will be a key factor.

The more scraps of understanding that can be gleaned about an individual the more tailored and appropriate their news service will be.

A case of Every Little Helps, perhaps.



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