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Sorry, Jeff Bezos, the news bundle isn’t coming back

Stashed in: Jeff Bezos

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“The problem is how do we get back to that glorious bundle that the paper did so well?” Bezos asked at a question-and-answer session with Post journalists.

Bezos lauded the “daily ritual” of reading the morning newspaper over coffee. “That daily ritual is incredibly valuable, and I think on the Web so far, it’s gotten blown up.”

But that daily ritual got blown up for good reason. Trying to recreate the “bundle” experience in Web or tablet form means working against the grain of how readers, especially younger readers, consume the news today. In the long run, it’s a recipe for an aging readership and slow growth.

What's a bundle? Is that a list of things to read?

Never ask a question you already don't know the answer to.  I'm guessing his audience longs for those days over Bezos' new vision, so he's giving them a chance to build their strawmen.

At root, the tendency toward boring headlines flows from thinking of a newspaper as a bundle. Customers buy entire newspapers, not individual articles. So by the time the reader has opened a newspaper, he’s already a captive audience. That gives newspaper editors little reason to write flashy, eye-catching headlines.

In contrast, people read online news one article at a time. Every article is competing with thousands of other articles for the reader’s attention. And that makes eye-catching headlines much more important. “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” may have been a good summary of what the Times story was about. But “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did” was a lot more likely to get people to click on the story and share it with their friends.

In yesterday’s Q&A, Bezos was dismissive of this approach to news. “If our readers read a couple of articles through the Web or Google News, a couple per month, that’s a small business,” he said. But this ignores another corollary to Joy’s Law: No matter how popular your news site’s home page (or tablet app) is, most readers are going to rely on someone else’s site to decide which news stories to read.

Headlines are advertising

And that’s connected to the other major challenge Bezos identified. “Every story gets rewritten in 100 places,” Bezos said. “Should we stop doing investigative journalism because it’s unrewarding and other people copy it? No, we have to figure out how to get back to that bundle.”

But those 100 rewrites don’t all get the same amount of traffic. Typically one or two of them will catch the imagination of Reddit and Twitter and get more traffic than all the other rewrites put together. And the original version of a story has some inherent advantages over the rewrites. It’s up first, of course, and its authors also have a lot more lead time to hone it into a polished, eye-catching package. In principle, then, there’s no reason in-depth investigative journalism shouldn’t be able to generate significant traffic.

The problem is that traditional news organizations, while good at gathering the news, are often bad at selling it online. Take, for example, this New York Times scoop from last year about Target using data mining to predict what products customers want to buy. The Times gave the piece the boring headline “How Companies Learn Your Secrets.” Kashmir Hill at Forbes did a rewrite of the story with the much catchier headline “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did.” The result? A lot of the social media traffic went to Forbes, netting them 2.1 million page views.

There’s no reason the Times couldn’t have titled its own article “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did.” And if it had done so, it probably would have gotten most of the traffic that went to Forbes. But the Times is steeped in newspaper culture, with its tendency toward understated headlines. So great reporting didn’t get the financial reward it should have.

Timothy B. Lee

Timothy B. Lee covers technology policy, including copyright and patent law, telecom regulation, privacy, and free speech. He also writes about the economics of technology. He has previously written for Ars Technica and Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter or send him email.

Me:  TBL (not Berners-Lee) wrote this article for the Washington Post and may be looking for work elsewhere very soon.  I joke.

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