Update: Lots of people are finding this post through Google searches for “the 5 W’s.” If you’re interested in something on the 5 W’s of journalism, you might try my post, The 5 W’s (and How) of writing for the Web.
Jay Rosen wrote a thoughtful blog post, What I think I know about journalism, that summarized succinctly many things Jay has been writing and saying about journalism into four clear principles. He inspired me to do the same with my thoughts about the news business. So this is what I think I know about the business of journalism.
Every journalist learned quickly in our first journalism class or newsroom lesson about the “5 W’s“: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? (How gets lumped in with the 5 W’s like Penn State in the Big Ten, a joke I’ll have to modify or abandon soon.) We have to answer those questions (some of them multiple times) in every story, or the story is somehow inadequate. The same questions are essential to survival and prosperity in the business of journalism:
Who? You need to understand your community – your users and your potential users – to succeed as a news organization. Know their demographics, their interests, their life circumstances. The better you know who they are, the better you can deliver value for them and the better you can serve businesses that want to connect with your users.
What? What makes you different? To people who might be interested in your content, or to businesses interested in connecting with your audience, you need to stand out from the crowd of alternatives. The more you seem like just another news source or just another advertising vehicle, the less time, attention and money you will command.
When? Timeliness has economic value in digital journalism. A news organization that is reliably first and reliably accurate will build an audience that will be valuable to business customers. I worry when I hear and read journalists saying they would rather be last with the news and get it right than be first and wrong. If you use that to emphasize the importance of accuracy, we agree. But if you use that to excuse being slow, I believe you are heading for failure. When news happens matters, and when people learn about the news matters. The news organization that can get the news right and get it first is on its way to success. Similarly, when provides excellent opportunities in digital commerce. A news organization that gets frequent attention as a timely source of news can deliver time-sensitive ads, coupons, deals and other commercial opportunities that will be valuable for consumers and businesses.
Where? Location is going to be increasingly important: What news (or background or coupon) is helpful to me right where I am this moment? Your mobile device knows where you are, and the companies that deliver news, information and commercial opportunities relevant to your location in a welcome and useful way will prosper.
Why? You need to understand (and be able to explain) why someone would use your product or service and why a business would pay for any services you offer. You have to understand what Clayton Christensen calls the job that you are doing for a business or a user.
How? How you deliver the news matters. In their days, newspapers and television were critical ways of delivering news and advertising. But today digital platforms – especially and increasingly mobile – have leapt past legacy media in people’s daily lives. Consider the contrast between these two reports I read yesterday: Rick Edmonds’ gloomy assessment of first-quarter performance by newspaper companies and Danny Sullivan’s report on a Google survey about how people use mobile devices (summarized in the video below; this post continues below the video).
The 5 W’s are often regarded and cited as the fundamental questions of journalism. I like to add three expanded fundamental questions for journalists: “how much?” and “so what?” to give perspective and deeper meaning and “how do you know that?” to underscore the importance of skepticism and verification. Those questions also get to the heart of the business of journalism:
How much? The business of digital journalism will succeed when you can deliver measurable results for business customers. Page views can be boosted by use of photo galleries that may not deliver meaningful attention to ads and by search-engine optimization that attracts distant eyeballs of no value to local businesses. Unique visitors reflect hit-and-run visitors attracted by viral content, a one-time link from a prominent website or a random search. Prosperity lies in developing ways to actually help businesses sell their products and connect with customers in meaningful ways, and to show businesses how much we are helping them.
So what? The best journalism helps people understand the importance and impact of the news, what it means to them. The successful news business will use those measurable results to answer “so what?” for business customers. You need to show businesses the importance and impact – and value – of reaching customers when and where they are learning news that affects their lives and their communities. If you can demonstrate the value of your users to businesses, you have the foundation for a prosperous and growing journalism business.
How do you know that? A journalist verifies facts by asking tough questions and getting to first-hand sources. News companies are spending too much energy and money pursuing wishful thinking about what people should pay for or pushing old models on a new market that has rejected them. The successful journalism venture will develop a business model that is based on first-hand experience and measurable results of how businesses and consumers will spend their time, attention and money and what they will share with and recommend to their friends, neighbors, family and customers.