Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Eliminate the Middleman

Gina Chen over at her Save the Media blog makes compelling, if flawed, argument that online newspapers need to focus less on news and more on niche interests as they seek, well, I’m not really sure. Eyeballs. Relevance. Ad revenue. Something or other. She’s not really clear.

This is her vision of what online newspapers should become:

Imagine a news Web site that’s a portal to everything people used to read in newspapers plus a bunch of things that newspapers were never able to provide.
When I read it, I thought, wow, this sounds familiar. Then I realized: Oh yeah. It’s the Internet. Seems we’ve already got what Chen envisions.

Sure, it’s not wrapped in a newspaper skin or attached to a particular newspaper brand, but that, in the end of all, is a good thing. While I agree wholeheartedly that one way to consistently attract a devoted number of eyeballs is to create a valuable niche product, I have to wonder why packaging niches under the wing of an online newspaper Web site is such a great idea. If the niche develops a strong following – and that’s a big if, as every niche you can possibly conceive already has 20 to 30 Web sites ranging from the obscure to the overcrowded – those in the niche are going to blow through the “news” part of the skin like fast passers at the toll booth.

The flaw in her argument lies in her description of how radio, and then television, lost the mass audience:

Radio lost the mass audience first when TV proliferated. Gone were the days when
a large swathe of the American audience was listening to “Gunsmoke” or the
“Avenger” on radio. TV started as a mass medium because there were a few
channels, so again, everybody seemed to watch “Laugh-In,” or “The Ed Sullivan
Show.” But then as more and more TV networks started, people fell into niches.
They could watch networks about just food or gardening or do-it-yourselfing or
history. Few shows could garner the huge audiences of the past, but
collectively, networks developed tight groups of devoted fans.
I agree that for radio and television – and newspapers – the mass audience is no more. But if you look carefully at radio and television, they are still that: Radio and television. Radio stations now stream themselves over the Web – offering their listeners the convenience of listening to their favorite radio station no matter where in the world they may be. But the radio stations don’t have to go through the hoo-hah and labor cost of repackaging their product for the web. It just streams, for free, with the same advertisers paying for it all. We can now turn to the Web for our favorite television shows, presented with “limited commercial interruption,” but the shows themselves are not re-tooled or rejiggered in any way to fit a Web audience. Radio and TV can repurpose their content on the web with little or no effort outside of producing their shows in the first place. Can newspapers do the same thing with rejiggered, re-tooled Web sites meant to draw readers, eyeballs, and revenue into a mass of niches? Not without a lot of labor. And labor cost. Chen seems to think otherwise:

The same is happening now with the transition of newspapers to the Web. The old
newspaper thinking was to reach a large, broad audience, which was often not
highly invested in the news. That meant editors picked story topics that would
appeal to the many, not the few. The Web, however, gives news organizations a
chance to reach a lot of small but highly interested niches.

The problem with developing niches is that those who want to make their niche strong have to be credible in that niche. Video gamers – a niche Chen proposes – want to know that the people “running” the site they frequent know intimately the games they’re talking about. Are newspapers going to be hiring gamers to run these sites, or will they go the citizen journalism route and find someone to do the work for free? Funny thing about citizen journalism is that I’ve noticed most of the people willing to do this kind of thing for free are already doing it, and would be hard-pressed to do so for “The Man.” And if the new news Web site that Chen envisions is only linking to other niches, then the site has become nothing but an aggregator and is missing out on the eyeballs and revenue for the stuff they produce in-house. Which used to be the news. And we’ve already seen newsrooms lay off book and movie critics and other individuals already working very hard to create niches for the news.

My local paper is trying a niche experiment. They’ve got two employees writing movie reviews, inviting the community to pour in and add their own comments and observations and such. It’s a small-town paper with a very small-town following. Their effort is noble. The number of eyeballs visiting is not. Their true niche still happens to be local news, oddly enough.

Journalists like to call themselves “instant experts,” and, obviously, newspapers plan to draw on that inventiveness (at least among the employees they have left) to create niche products, if they go this way. But I’ve learned from 12 years in the newspaper business that there’s a fine line between “instant expert” and “instant asshole.” Cross that line one time too many and your credibility is shot. There goes your niche.

Niches produced in-house will also have to show how they add to the bottom line. If they’re money sinks, how long will they last? I’m working on a niche product right now, and I know from experience that building the necessary audience is a slow process. Sure, you hear of the successes of Facebook and Twitter and the like, but their exponential growth rates are the gross exception on the Internet, not the rule, or just about every Web site out there would be bragging up their 200 million users – and their half billion dollar deficits, in the case of YouTube, which is a mass of niches that is bleeding money like nobody’s business. (Yes, that may be me picking out my own gross exception to the rule. But Facebook and Twitter aren’t making money, either. We use their services as a convenient benevolence, but for how long?)

And the biggest question remains: Why would niche-seekers want to go through a news Web portal to find their niches, when they can just Google or Bing themselves into niche oblivion? One of the great powers of the Internet is akin to the great power of the printing press: Both make information conveniently available to the common man without having to go through the middlemen of the church, the state, or the newspaper. If I want comics, for example (another Chen example) I can go to the comic strip artist’s Web site and read away. When I think of “Cul de Sac” or “Dilbert,” I don’t think, “I want to read them. Off to the newspaper Web portal. Nope. “Cul de Sac” I get straight from Richard Thompson, along with his own postings on his own blog. And Dilbert? I can see him through the little widget on my very own blog.

My blog is my portal to my niche interests. That’s the primary reason I put it up – so I have a place to go to get quickly to the niches I want. If I get a few fellow travelers along the way, that’s great. But this is a niche of one created by one and meant only for one. Is that selfish? No. It’s here for the world to see. But I’m not pretentious enough to think that every Dilbert or Cul de Sac fan is going to come through my portal to get to the niche they want. I’m a middleman primarily for myself.

Chen argues that news Web sites need to sell convenience. I argue the Web already offers it, eliminating the middleman.

Conversely, Steve Outing, writing for Editor & Publisher, has some better ideas here on how to offer the "convenience" Chen aspires to offer through hyperinteresting everything. I did have to laugh at Outing's suggestion, though, that some would pay for additional online content due to the "prestige of supporting local journalism." Small numbers there, I assume. Some of these approaches are very similar to what we're doing -- or going to do -- at Uncharted to supplement the online advertising revenue stream we're working on.

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