The Answer is “Niche Journalism”

Another week, another mashup of journalists publicly stumbling their way through the tough questions facing their industry, emerging on the other side of a two-hour session essentially where they started; with resigned, puzzled looks on their faces.   And then of course, a bunch of other journalists inevitably run back to their laptops to write about it.   We must forgive them of course, because although the formal industry is in dire straights, never has the field of journalism been such a rich battleground of ideas, open questions and opportunities to ruminate over.

This week, another chapter in this Mitchner-length saga unfolded; this time out west, amongst the cool shadows of the Rocky Mountains.  A panel of “old guard” journalists met out in Apsen, Colorado at the Ideas Festival to take another go at the new age  question of “How do we save journalism in it’s traditional form (a.k.a. ourselves)?”

Politico summed up the event nicely yesterday, capped with a snarky headline that could only have been written by an online-only news outlet, “Save Journalism?  Beats us panel says“.  But reading deeper into the article, that’s not actually what was said.  In fact, I’d argue that this panel of traditional journalists came the closest to a “mea culpa” moment that I’ve encountered.

“There’s been a lot of journalism that’s been done over the years that’s not worth a whole lot,” said [ABC News’ David] Westin. “You could have gotten it anywhere.”

Although Westin and others struggled to agree on a successful business model for news organizations going forward, they all agreed that specialization was going to play a crucial role.

…Echoing [Time’s Josh] Tyrangiel’s call for “the doctrine of indispensability,” Westin said the key to success falls in answering the question, “What can we provide that others can’t?”

Essentially they are talking about what we now are calling “niche journalism.” (We call it “niche” in comparison to today’s failing and bloated standard of sameness, but really it’s just bringing journalism away from it’s modern capitalistic sameness, back to it’s more diverse roots)  “Niche Journalism” takes many forms, from community/”hyperlocal” blogs like this one, to sites, magazines and papers that focus on specific industries.  There’s no secret to what the formula is.  Get smaller, go more specific and in-depth.

So what’s the problem?  Why, when the traditional sits down, do they end up at the conclusion of these pow-wows, without any concrete solutions to move forward?

It’s not because it’s some kind of unanswerable riddle, it’s because traditional media is in the worst possible position of all to answer it.  Their organizations are too large, too inefficient, to combat the publishing ease that caused this paper-killing chaos. (I’m publishing right now, on my couch with a $1,000 laptop, a $45 a month internet connection, and an hour of my time)  They are riddled with debt, and old advertising models that are actually forcing them to come up with some of the WORST solutions to these industry questions (see the Washington Post’s latest venture to hold off-the-record functions for lobbyists and politicians as a perfect example of this).

But dispite their inability to even begin to turn their own ships around, even the old media is beginning to come around to the hunches that upstart “thugs” (as a Gawker reporter called himself during the Aspen Q&A) have been acting on for years.   As each day passes, it seems to become increasingly clear that the “revolution” won’t be led by the traditional journalist.  They may eventually all see the problem and even the solution, but they will be happy if they simiply survive.  They are in no position to take on the risks of an upstart or visionary.  They will be forced to expend most of their energy on downsizing and figuring out how to survive in a new age of media.

Many old forms will downsize, like Newsweek recently did, and find their niche, but there just aren’t enough of them out there anymore to fill every niche.  And though the American population has put up with cloned news stories across every publication for many years, we are thirsty for greater variety, meaning there are literally thousands of neglected news corners in need of filling. And there’s the vacuum, which Rusty has cited in the past with his quip “Nature hates a vacuum.”

(And not coincidentally, it’s in niche journalism where online discussion and feedback from readers really shines, but that’s a topic for another post.)

That’s where the upstarts come in.  Be it laid-off writers or verbose jerks like me, the rest of us will be left with the unenviable task of figuring out what the population wants to read.  Many of us will fail trying, overwhelmed by the demands of new media, too inflexible to experiment, or because we just can’t write worth a darn.  However, enough will succeed and before we know it, a new, more diverse world of media will have emerged.

Look around, it’s already well under way.

5 thoughts on “The Answer is “Niche Journalism””

  1. Here’s what struck me as a jaw dropping quote from the Politico article, courtesy Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth:

    “There’s no doubt that there is a generational shift,” said Weymouth. “But it’s a little bit of a myth.” Weymouth said that more young people read the print edition of the Washington Post than watch “American Idol.”

    More young people read the print edition of the Washington Post than watch American Idol!?! Really? REALLY??

    The AI finale in May drew 28 million viewers. Assuming only 10% of those viewers were 18-24, Weymouth seems to be saying that more than 2.8 million young people read the just the print edition of the Washington Post. Do 2.8 million people period read the Washington Post?

    Unfortunately, her statement went unchalleged by the other panelists, so we have no idea how she chooses to define “young people” or over what period of time she is referring. But it certainly seems like a dumb thing to say because it appears impossible on its face and easy to check. Combined with the story about the Washington Post that came out yesterday, she seems to project an air of the blithe cluelessness shared by some other members of the “old media.”

  2. I really like the point on there being no doubt of a generational shift, but that it is ALSO a myth–which part does she believe?
    It seems they are clearly lost and confused–hell, we just read their story for free.

  3. So you’re telling me I should dump my News Corp / Time Warner stock? They both usually pay a regular dividend.

    Which of these clued-in new media firms would make a better investment?

    he he…

    1. I give great dividends Russ. Whenever your name comes up in conversation I say “Russ Taylor? That guy’s awesome!” Eventually people can’t help but agree. When is the last time News Corp did that for you?

      But seriously, I’m not arguing that big national media won’t (or shouldn’t) exist in the future, just that it will be a much smaller party in the future. Only so many outlets can tell the same story over and over again. The “niche” answer is for those orgs that can’t survive without change, and those looking to enter the field.

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