Saturday, February 2, 2008

[Journalism] The Nichification of the Media

OK, this turned out to be much longer than I thought it would be. I'm going to preface it by saying I'm not going to address the question of reporting in this post. Maybe in another one. I'll also say that thus far, this is a bit disjointed. Please flame away. That said....

I think this post is pretty accurate.... probably:

Media are mutating from mass to niche. OK. We get that.


That recess is a subtraction from the wall and that subtractive quality is what struck me this morning when I read a blurb in Paid Content announcing that a former Boston Globe political columnist will become managing editor of, a soon-to-be network of state-specific political news websites that appear poised to sprout from the New York Observer, the political weekly based in Manhattan.

1. The move from mass to niche is, indeed, correct, and is in no small part web/technology-driven. The ease with which information is moved around means that "newspapers" are less and less useful (or viable) as a way to organize information. Newspapers are tied to specific locations, to geography. The web is not. Which one will win in the long run among people who have grown up on the web?

2. Please note that #1 does not mean that newspapers will die out completely. The newspaper as a singular focal point of news, as an object around which content is structured, will undergo (and is already undergoing) significant changes, potentially losing most of its status.

This is also pretty astute:

Rather this announcement is a case is exemplary of the subtraction that has started and will continue to hit the journalism side of media just as it has already rocked the business side of media. We’re all familiar with this latter concept. Craig’s List started to subtract classified ad revenues; et all started to poach on the job-wanted ads; Yahoo and its cohort have siphoned off display advertising, and so on.

Think of the Associated Press as the predecessor to this movement on the content side. Now add a heavy dose of topical breakdown to that, and you're getting somewhere.


[T]he inexorable power of nichification is driven by the impulse toward efficiency. Thats what economics is all about. The drive for efficiency. And in so many walks of life specialization is efficient. Boring, maybe, but efficient.

This is interesting. I think it's correct, but I also deplore it. Newspapers, for some reason (a relatively privileged position in society, perhaps) are pretty far behind most other social institutions when it comes to fragmentation and specialization as part of a quest for greater efficiency (after all, Taylorism was so 1920s... or at least 1970s).

I posted once, I think (though I can't find it at the moment) about the nature of modern capitalism: It likes specialization. It likes to break things into tinier and tinier pieces, each more specialized and specific than the tier before.

You can see this is modern production techniques, the creation of ever-smaller niche markets for products, and even in the further specialization of job roles.

The belief, of course, is that same efficiency that underlies MiniMedia's point. And that same efficiency is, I think, anathema to good journalism - and to the creation of a good newspaper. (It's also anathema to human nature, to being a grounded human being, but that's another post.)

MiniMedia's conclusion:

How well does that analogy transfer to content and how does all this play out? How the hell would I know. But I am certain that every force in the world of media is prying loose the mortar in that wall I depicted above, and popping out stones at an accelerating pace. What I lay awake some nights wondering is: how many stones have to pop out before the godamn wall breaks?

I vacillate on my answer to these sorts of question, but, as of today, I think the wall breaking will come in the form of a radical shift in the business side of journalism, in how people are paid and what kind of name is on the check (or direct deposit slip, ha-ha). It will be less noticeable when it comes to the act of reporting (and here I differ from a lot of folks who are talking about this on the web). Certainly there is, and will continue to be, an upswing in the use of multimedia (electronic paper, anyone?).... but I still think the fundamental idea behind most media - reporting the events of the world - will not change.

Part of me expects a rapid and radical proliferation of content-specific niche organizations, like the one mentioned in MiniMedia's blog post. Those orgs would then sell, AP-style, to other organizations that simply collated content to produce a geographically grounded product. It would mean the outsourcing of almost all news production from the newspaper company in question. (Here I'm thinking of places like Politico or perhaps The Hill.)

This has already happened in radio, to some extent, and with disastrous consequences. Many radio shows are produced in advance and in a different state in which they are played, which removes radio as a social medium, as participatory, as well as removing the possibility for local, updated content.

Newspapers, on the other hand, are becoming more participatory in a sense, with the proliferation of comment-enabled websites and acceptance of the occasional bit of user-generated content. So that difference exists, and is important.

But what about the hyperlocal? I think it will still be produced locally, though certainly there is a question of resources - small newspapers can rarely afford to fund quality investigative journalism, or even comprehensive coverage (and certainly both the Lebanon Express and OSU's Daily Barometer are examples of this, albeit very different ones). There's also the question of user-generated content and what role that will play on the hyperlocal level.

I think users will have to take over more of a role. It's Indymedia meets the SPJ, and there's already one hell of a collision going on (see, for example, the reporting being done at leading political blogs like TPM or Firedoglake). But both sides are going to have to play nice sooner rather than later if anyone is interested in quality journalism surviving.

So what's my verdict? Change is a-comin', and as Mark over at Notes From a Teacher says on a near-daily basis, we (as a society) need to start changing the way we train and teach people to participate in the world of journalism - if that, is we are interested in seeing journalism survive in a useful form. I, for one, am definitely interested in that.


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