I couldn’t be more excited to join Circa, a new media startup, as “founding editor.” Part of the excitement is because, as the title suggests, it’s not your average editorial job. There are elements to the editorial process of Circa that will be unique. They will be defined and perhaps redefined as we go. That’s the nature of working for an organization whose mission isn’t to excel at the traditions of journalism but to redefine them altogether. It gives me the opportunity to question all assumptions, break down and redefine organizational structures, and more.

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At paidContent 2012 John Borthwick of BetaWorks gave an intriguing insight that I think speaks directly to the area that Circa is diving into. According to GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram, Borthwick told publishers to:

… stop thinking about what they produce as “content,” and start thinking about it as “information.” The problem with the word content is that it tends to focus attention on the package or the container for that content … and the package part of the media business is the aspect that is being disrupted the most.

The language change is minimal — from “content” to “information,” but the subtle shift alters how we think about a product and how users can engage with it. 

Creating content implies a certain packaging. We are producing “video” content or “text” content. Even “multimedia” content denotes a packaging with a pretty bow for the consumers to appreciate. 

As I read it, Borthwick is suggesting that information has an inherent value. While news content, as we traditionally think of it, is chock-filled with information, its value isn’t inherent, but manufactured and mediated for the audience. If information, as they say, wants to be free, then it can be packaged in unique ways that content cannot. Content’s package is determined for you.

INFORMATION AND CONTENT JUST AREN’T THE SAME
So let’s keep this distinction in mind going forward: Information vs. Content. Both are fantastic, but they are not the same. Jeff Jarvis does this topic even more justice in his recent post “News Articles as Assets and Paths.”

Meanwhile, at the heart of every discussion in the journalism world is economics. Even questions about editorial style somehow boil over to money. This is no surprise. The much-beloved New Orleans Times-Picayune recently announced it’s transitioning from a daily print to a thrice-weekly publication, along with severe newsrooms cuts. David Carr’s New York Times column “A Doomed Romance with a New Orleans Newspaper“ gives us the long and short of it. And Warren Buffett’s purchase of papers is accompanied by cries that the free ride for readers will be ending. Expect to pay. In a letter to publishers, Buffett put it this way:

We must rethink the industry’s initial response to the Internet. The original instinct of newspapers then was to offer free in digital form what they were charging for in print. This is an unsustainable model …

With the New York Times pay fence showing some signs of success, the debate of free vs. paid content has risen its ugly head again. It’s the debate that has David Simon of “Treme” and “The Wire” all fired up at CJR. Indeed, it has been the great conversation in media for at least the last two years if not longer.

NEWSPAPERS SELL CONTENT, NOT INFORMATION

But there is a giveaway in that phrase “free vs. paid content.”

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Opponents of pay walls often say “information wants to be free.” But what newspapers are selling isn’t information. For the most part, they sell content. I’ll grant it’s a specific type of content that uses information as brick and mortar, but it is not pure information.

So can newspapers erect pay walls around content? Sure, that’s their prerogative. It just might work, too. Producing news articles and putting them behind a pay wall is a great idea if what people want is your content.

But what if they just want information? If that’s the case, it will be much harder to ask folks to pay and even doubly hard to meet their desires with an outdated form (the article). The best-use cases of information trumping content might be around trials. Have you already been following the George Zimmerman or health care trials? Then instead of some content in article form to digest, maybe you just want the latest information. “Today the defense rests” or “the jury decided unanimously innocent on X charges.” 

These are snippets of information — what Jarvis calls “assets.” They are facts. Once known, they are free. They might be incorporated into content and then put behind a pay wall, but the information, which is at the heart of the news, will remain free. You cannot copyright a fact. You cannot sue if people aggregate, retweet or share the information.

Is the distinction between “content” and “information” fair? More importantly, would people pay for access to information over or instead of content? If so, what type of information (Wall Street numbers being the obvious affirmative)?

These are questions the news industry doesn’t seem to ask itself but is very much at the heart of Circa.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Aunty P.