Should the goal of media be to give people what they WANT or what they NEED — or both? To get 100% what you want is pure echo chamber, like Fox News and many political blogs. To get a 100% of what you need may or may not involve too much “broccoli,” depending on how you live your life. (Thanks to Pete Cashmore getting me thinking about this.)

Years ago, I taught test prep classes for The Princeton Review. Occasionally, I would teach the Verbal section of the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), even though I had never taken the MCAT, never been to medical school, or even took a hard science course in college. The Verbal section is about reading comprehension and requires no knowledge of science. I used to begin every course by taking out a passage from one of the SCIENCE sections of the test and showing how, with some very close reading and a tiny bit of lucky guessing, I could answer every question correctly without knowing any science.

My students HATED this. It wasn’t what they WANTED — what they wanted was help cramming more Bio, Chem, Organic Chem, and Physics into their poor overtaxed, pre-med brains. What they NEEDED was to improve their standardized test-taking skills.

It seems to me that we’re not going to make any meaningful progress on solving the information overload problem until we can help people decide what it is they want out of media. Seth Finkelstein made a great observation about this in a comment on my previous post:

Finding what’s popular is easier and more profitable than what’s “important”. In order to find the popular, you just poll either the crowd, or the demagogues (people who are experts – at what’s popular). That’s very simple (relatively speaking).

But how do you find what’s important, what you need? What do you code for? The first cut is to poll a niche rather than a general audience. But problems there are that there might not be enough of a sample, and the economics are even less supportable.

Perhaps the real question is how successful do you want your business model to be? News Corp has shown that giving people what they want can be very profitable. But I still think there are significant business opportunities in helping niche audiences find what they NEED — especially in a B2B context.

It’s interesting that you rarely (if ever) see any of the Web 2.0 crowd looking at the B2B space. Business intelligence is information that gives you a competitive advantage. In B2B, media consumers don’t want an echo chamber — they want their broccoli. If my goal is to succeed in business, I want to know what I NEED to know — I don’t want to be pandered to.

But even in the consumer space, I think the majority of people still value information that helps improve their quality of life — which is not always a function of reinforcing what you already know (or think you know).