News organizations: Break the paradigm & choose your niche

How I spend my time:

* Work — I teach, which requires a great deal of research for preparation and grading immersion.

* Sleep — Not as much as I’d like or as much as doctors recommend, but still it makes up 25% of my days.

* Eat — Mostly at home, but with regular restaurant visits.

* Relationships — Being with my wife, my children, my friends, my students.

* Home ownership — The typical upkeep plus we’re renovating so painting, etc.

* Leisure – I run in the mornings. I read books. I wander around Facebook, Twitter and the Internet. I watch some TV.

Now, let’s compare how much of that is reflected in my daily newspaper:

* Work — No.

* Sleep — No.

* Eat — On Wednesdays and Sundays there are recipes and restaurant news.

* Relationships — Not much.

* Home ownership — Not much.

* Leisure — Eddie Wooten has a great running blog. A book page runs every other week, but its reviews are parochial. Internet coverage? Not much. TV? Not much. The TV book has been restored, but I’ve never used it.

My newspaper isn’t alone in not reflecting how I live. It is typical of most people and their papers. And it’s not restricted to newspapers; TV news has the same news diet, and it’s not in touch with mine.

Is the disconnect between how I live and what the news covers unusual? I don’t know. When I had kids in public schools, I was interested in school news and high school sports. I’m not any more. My children didn’t go to the colleges in the area so, other than a general civic interest, what happens at UNCG or A&T or Guilford, Bennett or Greensboro doesn’t interest me much.

But imagine this: What would happen if the newspaper or TV station compared their typical content with the day-to-day interests and activities of their readers/viewers? And what if they took those results and changed the way they report the news? Would that make their products more relevant to the people they aim to serve? (Steve Buttry and Elaine Chisham point out that the Pocono Record did this very thing several years ago. It is documented in the Newspaper Next project report, page 60.)

I think news execs would be stunned and, I hope, motivated to rethink how they approach the news.

I asked my Facebook friends what topic area they would like to see covered in the news. I asked at 5:30 Saturday afternoon, traditionally a slow time on my newsfeed. It is currently at 40 comments. Not surprising — to me, at least — the biggest voter-getter is investigative reporting. Sound familiar? (Coincidentally, Sunday was a good day around N.C. for that kind of reporting.)

Don’t get me wrong.Traditional news coverage is important. I want to know about the important crimes in the area, and how city hall and school board decisions might affect the community. But many news organizations have focused on the core traditional coverage areas — local government, cops and crime — as they’ve responded to cut backs in staffing. And the meetings and run-of-the-mill criminal justice reports aren’t truly the most relevant to the most people.

You’re covering too many things that only a few people actually care about on a day-to-day basis.

Most news organizations know that tough decisions must be made. Most also know that they must embrace innovation and take risks. Revamping your beat structure from the way it’s been done for 50 years to the things that people truly care about is risky. But damn, it’s getting late.

My friend Matt DeRienzo of Digital First is pioneer and leader in journalistic change. On that Facebook post, he describes how it feels to be between a rock and a hard place. “We recently established a full-time poverty beat. We are also going to be dedicating more resources to commodity breaking news, though, because competition with TV station web efforts is killing us.”

He’s right.

For me, you have to decide your niche in the market for print and digital. I suggested for print that it should be investigative reporting and good news. For digital, it’s something else because traffic is so important. (Provocative politics would be one on my envisioned site because that is important and it gets traffic, as opposed to crime news, which gets traffic but is rarely important.)

Mass is dead or dying. News orgs can’t do everything.

But consider this: Nate Silver created a movement with his data anaylsis at the N.Y Times. Brian Stelter did something similar with his media coverage. Both carved a niche by doing something different. Local journalists can do the same thing if they are given the opportunity.

From that Newspaper Next report: “The biggest lesson we have learned is that paradigms can change. We’ve always heard. ‘We don’t have enough resources to do what we’ve always done. There are high-value and lower-value areas. Utilizing information from jobs to be done, you can focus on the higher-value areas, and deliver information on topics that your readers really care about.”


9 thoughts on “News organizations: Break the paradigm & choose your niche

  1. Well, lemme “mansplain” it to you, John. Mass media is still doing mass for three big reasons that come to mind immediately, and I suspect the third one is the most daunting.

    1. Habit, infrastructure, and The Harvest Strategy.

    2. Ad pricing. In theory, niche and hyperlocal publications (digital or print) should charge a higher rate-per-view for advertising than mass publications that assemble enormous but unfocused audiences. That’s because if your product/service matches the publication’s topic/geography precisely, the niche/small ad buy offers you a great signal-to-noise ratio.

    But there are all sorts of reasons why making the shift to this emphasis is daunting for mass-media companies, not the least of which is that for geographically based metros, promoting this type of pricing and segmentation undermines their traditional sales pitches. And if they want to keep some portion of their old mass audience, with traditionally priced advertising, then they’re competing against themselves.

    Also, keep in mind that advertisers at the hyperlocal level have their own ideas about what works, what they are used to, and what mass media companies actually deliver. I know several companies who have abandoned traditional newspaper ads AND newspaper web ads and now spend their budgets on billboards, direct mail, email campaigns using their own lists, and social media. Some of these small businesses are not only skeptical of buying banners on news media, they’re also hostile to the old mass-media sales reps who sold them overpriced packages that put their message in front of random people who will never, ever, have an interest in what they sell.

    Whereas the people who still buy ads on their mass-media pubs do so for whatever reason, and changing the game on them to emphasize niche is likely to produce a new set of hostile reactions.

    3. Aggregation of modern micro-audiences is a bitch.

    All our traditional (20th century) ideas about mass media are based on covering topics that had great economies of scale. Hence state government reporting (affects entire metro audience) has the best economy of scale because it can be covered by a few reporters, while local coverage has the worst. So it’s “intensity of interest” vs. “the audience-to-reporter” ratio.

    20th century mass media worked by emphasizing topics with the best economies of scale and supplemented that base business by assembling a series of micro-audiences (high school football fans, cooks, various localities), with the thought that there would be some Venn Diagram bleed-over. In a low-bandwidth era, that was a great bet.

    It really kinda sucks in the 21st century, though. And I say this as a guy who runs a local soccer news site predicated on both hyperlocal AND niche. The Venn bleed-over between fans of the local professional club and the four local college teams is tiny. The Venn bleed-over between any one of the local college teams and any of the OTHER college teams is not even worth counting. It’s really not even a Venn Diagram. It really is a set of silos.

    And the lesson I’ve taken is that what is VERY interesting to you is actually just not all that interesting to the next guy. Plus, not everything that we do on a daily basis is actually all that interesting.

    We should have learned this from our 1990s mania for figuring out a way to “cover the suburbs.” Except that it turns out that even people who live in the suburbs just aren’t really all that interested in them. Everybody in the newspaper business tried to crack this nut. No one succeeded. It’s just a terrible economy of scale for a hyperlocal identity that people don’t care about.

    For new media ventures to be successful, they need to fit a formula like this: It needs to assemble a coherent audience (a precise fit for a defined group of potential advertisers) with a sustainable audience-to-reporter ratio, around a topic with intense interest. Forget what people do. Forget what they tell you in focus groups or surveys. Find out what they groove on, and then see if you can do better than break-even on covering it.

    I can think of multiple ways companies could transition to this model, but I’m telling you — they’re NOT INTERESTED. They each want to cash the last newspaper check that doesn’t bounce. Let them.

  2. That’s a good challenge for any newspaper editor.

    Now I’m considering a Kickstarter for a newspaper devoted to sleep. “Everybody does it! It’s No. 2 on the list! “

  3. That sounds suspiciously like “lowest common denominator” for the upper-west side. The problems are that mass pays the best and that there are as many nices/niches combos as there are readers.

    We need to build platforms that allow the readers to tacitly build their own collections of niches. Content has to live in systems that are smart enough to mold themselves to the unspoken (and spoken) desires of the users.

    • Thanks, Mark. I don’t know what lowest common denominator for the upper-west side means. I think the onus is on the news org to make sure it asks a reasonable cross section of its readers what they want or, to use the terminology of Newspaper Next, what jobs they need done. I do think that news organizations can keep its readers/audience and even gain some with a narrower focus – niche – than they have now. But they have to focus.

      I agree with your second graph, Mark.

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