How to handle the information surplus

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The Independent Online
Can there be a surplus of information as there is with physical commodities? If so, what would be the equivalent, in terms of news and current affairs of, say, wheat piled up in warehouses? I ask this question because I have believed for some time that there may well be such an over- provision in the sense of there being too many suppliers of broadly the same information. When people complain about the sheer size of their newspapers and about the bewildering number of magazines and newsletters covering every conceivable interest, about the non-stop news programmes that radio and TV provide, and now the Internet, they have a point.

One sign of surplus is that businesses are beginning to see information management as a distinct task that needs to be done well. Reuters recently published a poll of line managers' attitudes which revealed that many felt they were suffering from "information overload". As a result, new types of job have been created - director of information, chief knowledge officer and the like. I think information handling will become a business skill that will eventually rank alongside personnel management and financial control as essential services no enterprise can do without.

A second sign of over-supply is price weakness. Here one has to look not only at the prices of publications but also at the rates that publishers of news and current affairs can charge for any accompanying advertising. In both cases you can see a steady decline in real terms. And on the Internet, which has greatly enlarged in an unplanned way the amount of readily available information, few publishers have been able to extract any money from visitors to their sites. Perhaps The Economist, which last Friday started to ask a fee for online access to its articles, will be an exception - The New York Times abandoned similar plans.

Over-supply often follows a drop in production costs. The consequent widening of profit margins encourages expansion and also new entrants and then the increase in output may well be carried too far. National newspapers have more than halved their workforces compared with 10 years ago, while substantially increasing their output as measured by paging and various supplements. There have been similar increases in the efficiency of radio and television news gathering.

The supply of news and current affairs, however, is not an industry like any other. Some of the biggest players are non-commercial. The BBC, for instance, does not have to worry about its revenue - the licence fee is payable without regard to the use its customers make of its service. So whenever BBC management complains about this or that, it is worth remembering that it is spared the hardest part of running any business - succeeding in the marketplace.

Another feature of the news and current affairs industry is that many of the providers, while not subsidised by the state, are none the less considered by their owners to be trophy assets. Control of a television network, radio station or newspaper is seen as conferring prestige as well as providing a financial reward. Consequently, low returns or losses will be borne with more patience than is normally the case. Indeed for as long as I can remember there have been rich businessmen ready to acquire national newspapers - the Fayeds at the moment, and before them, "Tiny" Rowland, the late Robert Maxwell, Sir James Goldsmith and the Cadbury family, which owned the News Chronicle, later absorbed into the Daily Mail. The upshot, to put it in economic terms, is that supply adjusts only marginally, and slowly, to changes in demand, such as a fall in advertising revenue during a recession.

What is to be done? This question about designing a product for an over- supplied market faces the editors of this newspaper and its rivals, as well as the managers of radio and television news and current affairs. Likewise the reader or listener or viewer despairingly poses a similar problem: "How shall I cope?" A common answer, which I believe is mistaken, is to put as much as possible in short form. You can even buy software that will automatically summarise complex documents.

The trouble with summaries and news bites, however, is that they are often misleading, making sense only to the summariser, who remembers what has been left out. Intelligent people need an almost direct, sensuous contact with the news as it develops. Then they can see patterns in the flux of reported events. They can synthesise changing data. It does them no service to boil everything down. Channel 4 News at 7pm and, in France, the 8pm Journal on France 2, transmit news stories at greater length than their rivals - albeit covering fewer items - and both stations, I would say, achieve a more satisfying result.

There is too much news and not enough thinking. One of the reasons why I greatly enjoy Peter Jay's presentation of economic news on BBC 1 is that his reports are the product of a lifetime's consideration of the subject. It shows. Every significant angle is caught and integrated into his text, graphics and pictures. In the same way, if information managers working in companies spent less time preparing summaries and instead arranged sessions in which groups of executives discussed the news relevant to their activities - however specialist and technical - and thought through the implications, they and their colleagues would begin to understand the Big Picture much better.

The most important challenges in journalism and information management in these times of glut are how to let the Big Picture emerge, rather than how to compress news into a given space as measured by broadcast seconds, column inches or paragraphs in news digests. We need an expansiveness as well as an economy of coverage. Otherwise the old and persistent question - what does it all mean? - can never be answered.