Fruit, chocolate and news with feeling

Ever since I heard the Undercover Economist Tim Harford‘s “The Logic of Lifelecture at the LSE I have been banging on about the “fruit versus chocolate” experiment to anyone who will listen. Now I’m afraid I’m going to share it here.

In short:

“the experimenters offered the subjects a snack: fruit or chocolate. Seven out of ten subjects asked for chocolate. But when the experimenters offered other subjects a different choice, the answer was different too: ‘I’ll bring you a snack next week. What would you like then, fruit or chocolate?’ Three-quarters of subjects chose fruit.”

This, Tim argues, demonstrates the theory that human beings have two competing systems for decision making. One, the dopamine system, is geared towards rewarding immediate gratification. The other, the cognitive system, prioritises long-term planning.

When the brain is presented with the possibility of immediate gratification (such as the offer of chocolate), the dopamine system overides the cognitive system (prioritising the unhealthy sugar rush with the healthier fruit option).

I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between this and news consumption patterns. Could it be that if the experiment replaced fruit and chocolate with the FT and The Sun you’d get a similar result?

It appears I’m not alone observing the connection. Last year Seamus McCauley, Strategic Analyst at Associated Northcliffe Digital suggested that by “unbundling” news stories from the paper onto the web, readers may increasingly choose to indulge in celebrity gossip or quirky stories (chocolate) and abandon “hard news” (fruit).

I’m not sure I’d go that far – news is still a pretty well read section on any news website I’ve worked on. Also, as Seamus’s commenters point out, you can balance your dopamine-hungry browsing by ensuring you get your “daily fruit” with RSS subscriptions or e-newsletters.

But the idea that there may be some way to make “harder” news less like fruit and more like chocolate is an enticing one.

It sent me off down a long and bizarre train of thought equating different ways to eat fruit (dip it in chocolate, chop it into bite-size chunks, etc.) with various methods of news consumption.

In the end I realised that, for me, it was all about the smoothies.

In particular, Innocent Smoothies.

First of all, smoothies are a pretty easy way to boost your fruit intake.

Also, whatever you think about their “twee” advertising (and recent Coca-Cola investment announcement)  Innocent have been widely praised for their customer-focused approach.

The company works hard to make people feel good about buying their product. When customers contact the brand, Innocent try to make them feel valued. This is what distinguishes it from the many other (probably just as good) smoothie brands in the market.

So, could news organisations learn anything from this?

Well, I guess there is already a lot of talk about how news brands can present content in easy-to-consume formats – whether that be a great website, iPhone app or e-Reader.

But what about the service? How good do news brands make people feel about reading their stories?  Do you feel valued as a customer by any particular news organisation?

Beyond the parasitic news model (and why Kindle won’t save us either)

So it’s 2009 and the search for a sustainable online newspaper business continues.

Even Google hasn’t quite worked out how traditional newspapers safely navigate past the Rusbridger Cross to emerge as businesses that generates most of their revenue from online operations.

The problem: print commands much higher premiums for advertising then the web does.

In order to compensate for that, web businesses either need to significantly scale up output, or significantly cut back on costs.

Currently one common solution espoused by those immersed in online business is to find someone else to worry about most of the costs for you.

The thinking is thus: the web is already awash with stories produced by other news orgainsations and these can be used as a free resource.

With a bit of repurposing and organising by a small team of copy editors, stories can be presented as an entirely new, high-volume, comprehensive news service.

It’s a smart model – one that could also disrupt the many news aggregation subscription services that exist.

You could also argue that, by combining stories from many sources, better organising them or by integrating social media, these news businesses are occupying a space that could/should have been filled by newspapers a long time ago.

But I still can’t see how their businesses can be sustainable in the long term. By relying on the mainstream media to produce their information in the first place,  they are tying themselves into the very business model they claim to be replacing.

If the mainstream media fails, these new businesses fail with it.

Mainstream media provides a volume of news online that is yet to have an equivalent.

I know it’s not a popular argument to make, but I’m afraid no other online content (as it currently stands) will cut it as a replacement. (If you don’t believe me, ask Eric Schmidt.)

Think about it: how many websites would you have to trawl through a day to find as many celebrity gossip stories as you would get from the combined feeds of The Sun, The Daily Star and The Mirror?

More scarily, how many websites would you have to trawl through a day to find an equivalent volume of quality business news that you get from The Financial Times feed?

An alternative theory is that the news industry needs to learn from the music industry and to replicate  iTunes or create some other form of paid-for model.

I’m not so sure that works either.

I agree that there is much we can learn from the music industry (that lawsuits and protectionist attitudes won’t save you – for example),  but I think there are also very distinct differences.

For example, when consumers download music off the internet for free, they pretty much know they are doing it illegally. The large record companies are not putting out their content for free on their own websites and there is no official Google Music.

We also do not have a market where consumers understand they have to invest in electronic devices for the purpose of accessing print content. This, in my opinion, is why the Amazon Kindle is unlikely to be the answer to the newspaper industry’s woes.

Perhaps a more fruitful investigation would be into developing paid-for products and services that reuse content or closely ally to the media brand.