Saturday, August 1, 2009

Rule #32: Content isn't king. Context is king.

Case in point: the New York Times, yesterday and today, on the way bankers have handled the economic recovery and their own just (or unjust) self-awarded rewards. The front page of the Times yesterday (July 31) has a lead story on the right hand column with the headline: "Bankers Reaped Lavish Bonuses During Bailouts/Cuomo Issues a Report/About 5,000 Got Over $1 Million--A Spur to Debate on Pay." That headline pretty much says what Louise Story and Eric Dash go on to report in the story. Banks were battered; bankers still go huge bonuses. That's the "news." But how should I think about it? What is the correlation between the behavior of the bankers and, say, the larger narrative of the national and global economic crisis?
For that you have to turn to the business section and read Floyd Norris' column. And there the headline tells you a different tale: "It May Be Outrageous, but Wall Street Pay Didn't Cause This Crisis." Norris' column is all about the context of the news. He brings in interesting connections, including one study that shows that the more CEOs held stock in their own companies, the worse the bank performed. Norris quotes the study: "Bank C.E.O. incentives cannot be blamed for the credit crisis or for the performance of banks during the crisis."
Then in today's paper, Joe Nocera takes the contextual discussion another step. In a column headed, "'Nice' Wasn't Part of the Deal," Nocera raises the question of whether banks and bankers should even be expected to behave differently than they have. "To ask them to put aside the profit motive, even temporarily, for the good of the country-it's not even in their frame of reference," he writes.I would have been ecstatic if Joe had taken another step, and questioned the unquestioned rule of publicly traded companies--that their one allegiance is to create shareholder value. But as always Joe is asking good questions, digging into the story behind the story, and challenging the easy emotional reaction that the first front page story in the Times could elicit.
But beyond the specifics of the banking pay argument, here's the point: If the New York Times were to disappear tomorrow, I wouldn't miss the front page; I'd miss Floyd Norris and Joe Nocera. I'd miss their informed point of view, their capacity to ask the right questions, their willingness to dig deeper and bring new insights into the conversation.
Content is a commodity. Context creates value.
It's not only true for newspapers, magazines, and the media industry; it's how each of us add value at work, every day. Information may be free, but knowledge, insight, and perspective are all things you can charge for.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb