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By Thomas Baekdal - July 2011

250 Words + A Picture

One of the greatest failings of newspapers, especially online, is their relentless optimization of content at the expense of real value. I'm talking about the 250 words article + a picture.

I do not know when it first started, but at some point, the business MBA's entered the newsroom and started to optimize everything. The same kind of people who made McDonald charge $0.25 for ketchup. Sure you can earn a little extra money, but it is at the expense of the overall feel of the product.

McDonald's can get away with it because people know it is junk food. Newspapers cannot. Their entire industry is centered around creating value.

I think Derek Sivers put it best in his story, "I miss the mob."

We see it all the time. Something happens in the world, and the journalist just switch off his brain copy/paste content from somewhere, and adds one almost matching picture from an image provider. And then it is published, with no editorial quality control, no journalistic standard. Nothing.

It is not journalism, it content marketing.

Let me give you a simple example. Today, one of the politicians in Denmark said that we needed tighter border control because of rampant crime in east-European countries.

The European Union has also incorporated a series of Eastern European countries in the Schengen cooperation - most recently Bulgaria and Romania - two high-criminal countries where the east-mafia has almost as much influence as the countries' politicians and the shootings in the streets are commonplace and corruption is a fairly common phenomenon.

Note: Translated from Ritzau.

Strong words, right? Perfect for a newspaper looking for page views. And perfect for politicians looking to use populistic messages to spin the newspapers to give them even more "airtime."

Most Danish newspapers simply copy/pasted the 250 words and added a random picture from an image bank. I have yet to find even one newspaper who actually asked the most critical question any newspaper can ask: "Is this true?" The newspapers have lowered themselves to the level of 15-year-old bloggers who just copy/paste content that they find online.

Where is the journalism? Where the investigative reporting? Why even hire journalists if your "content strategy" is just to be mindless zombies copy/pasting content from wire services?

It is not hard to figure out. Just go to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, where you can find up-to-date statistics from more than 170 countries - all easily downloadable in a nice Excel spreadsheet format. All you need to do is to add up the numbers.

What you then find is that the politician mislead the public (now there is a story). The real numbers show that the crime rate in Denmark is 6.16% compared to less than 1% in both Romania and Bulgaria.

Note: It also turns out that Bulgaria and Romania isn't part of the "Schengen border cooperation." And again, this vital fact wasn't discovered by members of the press. It took another politician to point that out. All the press did was to copy/paste another 250 word article.

Which one is the better story? Mindless copy/pasting something from a wire-service - just to fill up today's quota. Or, spending 5 minutes looking at the actual crime statistic and learn that the politician mislead the public?

Which one do you think people are likely to pay for?

Note: You can then look at the statistics on how effective the police is in bringing the criminals to justice, which you can also find on the UN page.

If you want to be successful in the future. A world in which we have an abundance of channels, sources, and views. The first thing you need to do is to get rid of the 250 words + a picture culture.

It is Demand Media tactics. It is focused on trying to cheat people into giving newspapers more page views - for as low a cost as possible. It is not journalism. Anyone can do it. You do not need to be a newspaper to compete on copy/pasting.

Drop the 250 words + a picture. Spend the extra 5 minutes being a journalist.

Make yourself worth paying for!


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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