Earlier today Wired News reported that Gannett, the publisher of USA Today and 90 daily newspapers across the US, is restructuring its newsrooms as 24/7 "information centers" that will rely heavily on user-generated content and the eyes, ears, and minds of citizen journalists. Rarely does industry news send a shiver of genuine excitement down my spine, but this story absolutely did because Gannett's actions are an evolutionary leap forward for the media and news industries.
The Wired story covers Gannett's ambitious plans to "crowdsource" (see Brett's May blog post for his perspective) its news function, enabling the media giant to focus more of its energies on local news while transforming its newsrooms and websites into digital nerve centers for their respective communities. While the last phrase of the previous sentence could be used to describe any number of media companies that claim to understand and embrace "digital convergence", it is not so hackneyed a phrase when describing a 100 year old, $13 billion publicly traded company. This is actually real news for a change.
Gannett's move is sure to stir controversy in the inner circles of its industry, but I have no doubt that the company's biggest competitors are already, or will soon be, right on its heels. Even so, Gannett will certainly have to endure more than its fair share of criticism. After all, we users aren't perfect and Gannett will face a daunting editorial challenge in managing the biases of so many citizen journalists. (For the record, the Wired story doesn't describe Gannett's strategy as "citizen journalism" – I'm using that label, editorially!) But in my view, quite a few missteps are to be expected – and tolerated – before Gannett gets the formula just right.
What's most exciting about this is the potential for Gannett's actions to influence consumer brands and retail businesses to follow a similar path, enabling their consumers to play contributing and editorial roles in how their products and services are concepted, developed, packaged, and delivered to markets. This is painfully obvious, but media companies like Gannett are the makers and shapers of public opinion, and if Gannett is successful in its transition to an audience-powered media company, there will be major ripples across other industries because of the underlying change in consumer expectations. Once we, as consumers, begin to see our own contributions delivered locally, nationally, or even globally as "news", we will begin to expect a similar degree of influence over the advertising messages that bombard us and the products that stock store shelves. As the nation's top-selling newspaper, USA Today is just as well recognized a brand as Nike, Nokia, or Neiman Marcus, but Gannett sees the big picture – that tectonic shift in power from company to consumer that we're always blogging about! – and that big picture is worth taking risks that will likely seem small in hindsight.