This week, as the number of RSS feeds I subscribe to crossed 150 (accounting for several hundred posts a day and at least an hour of reading time), I took a moment to look at what I've signed up for and why.
Aside from a few purely information feeds, such as new Netflix releases, most of what I read online is blogs. (You can see my current subscriptions here.) I don't visit any mainstream media sites directly (and in print, I only read the Sunday New York Times and a load of magazines). If there's something relevant to my interests in the Wall Street Journal, the daily NYT or some other news site, I assume one of the blogs I read will point me to it.
This is not to say that I don't value mainstream media; I do. It's just that I'd rather choose my own editor to select the articles of highest importance to me (including those the mainstream media choose not to cover at all, or just not well). In this case that "editor" is a network of bloggers, not whomever decides what makes it to the front page of the newspaper. This works so well that I suspect I'm actually reading more articles from mainstream media, and from a broader range of it, than ever before. It's just all via blogs, which microchunk and remix the information in ways that make it more useful to me.
[Yes, I know that I'm an editor-in-chief in my day job, and, no, I
don't find this contradictory. There's a role for multiple levels of
editing and filtering, both before publication and after--what I call pre-filtering and post-filtering.
My job is to be a pre-filter, but I know that this isn't enough. For
our stories to have maximum impact, the post-filters, mostly
influential bloggers, have to find value in what we've done and bring
it to the attention of their readers. I control part of the attention
chain, but the wise crowd controls the rest.]
What all these blogs that have earned their way to my feed list are doing is adding value to commodity information. The ones I'm reading do this in at least one of three main ways:
- Add value with a unique perspective or analysis.
- Add value with unique information.
- Add value by providing a unique filter/lens on content available elsewhere.
This is not just a smart strategy for blogs; it's a smart strategy for any content creator in an era where the tools of production and distribution are fully democratized and the marketplace is flooded with commodity competition.
For instance, magazines such as my own have the same challenge. We
don't compete with any single other magazine or media source; we
compete with the entire Internet--the sum total of all news, opinion
and information from any source, from professional media to
well-informed amateurs and everything in-between.
The magazines that have a place in this world, despite the massive competition and the costs and delays of publishing on paper (in addition to online, of course), are those that offer something you can't get elsewhere. They do one or more of the following:
- Add value with unique perspective or analysis (above and beyond what's already out there).
- Add value with unique information (often obtained through the privileged access still afforded the mainstream media).
- Add value with unique presentation, especially using immersive forms that don't work well on-screen, such as long-form narrative and lavish packaging (including photography, infographics and other design elements).
It's not easy to do this well, which is why I imagine we'll see fewer successful magazines in the future than we have today. But it's not impossible, and the magazines that do thrive in the Friedmanesque Flat World of ultimate competition and commodification will be those that are genuinely differentiated, not just those who can buy ink by the barrel and glossy paper by the roll.
Finally, I find it interesting that the word "subscribe" applies equally to both blogs and magazines, and that the success strategies for each are, at least at the level described above, so similar. I think the common factor is that a "subscription" requires an active gesture on the part of the reader--an invitation to come back often--that crosses some significant threshold of cost, in money and/or time. That's a big deal and it's hard to achieve. But attempting to get there brings out the best in editors and bloggers alike.