I should start off by saying that many of these phrases we use, like monetising content, are a little ugly to the ears of journalists because, quite rightly, we’re more interested in good journalism than in creating new business models or monetising anything. On the other hand, making good journalism profitable ought to be of interest to all of us, because I don’t know about anyone in the audience but I like to get paid. And I want to argue that social media can be something of a distraction from the business of renewing the profitability of newspapers, because it distracts from the product. In an industry rattled by endless rounds of cost-cutting, I think there’s a great deal of lazy cynicism about what social media can achieve.
So let’s start with the state of the product rather than the medium: news. Long before the arrival of the internet and online news, I argue in my book Niche, many of the big public conglomerates which control the mainstream press were shaving away at their product to deliver more value for their shareholders. At the same time, faced with competition from television and the internet for our attention, many of them kept expanding their remit, spread themselves ever more thinly over more and more subject areas – everything from reality TV to the Royal Family – in an effort to retain the attention of their audience. The result is that throughout the 1990’s many newspapers put on a huge amount of weight, but much of the extra bulk consisted of little more than advertising vehicles hitched clumsily to a flagging editorial engine in a desperate effort to deliver eyeballs to advertisers. After years of these painful cuts, newspapers and general-interest magazines have been forced to take the plunge into a vast ocean of online information and social media. Faced with new threats from online media and new pressure on their profits, many of those same newspaper groups have responded by announcing yet more rounds of cost-cutting, laying off more journalists and spreading themselves even more thinly over more subject areas. And now, with the industry is such a parlous state, you can see the temptation, stoked by a bunch of flaky internet gurus; given the strain on news resources, why not just strive to be just part of the conversation on social media? Why not get readers to gather the news themselves and then spread it around?
Well I think that strategy isn’t going to work, and it’s a good thing too. In fact, I think, what’s called for is much more radical root-and-branch approach, and it involves paying closer attention to the project. Thrown into vast online eco-systems like Google and Facebook, the new news operators that I see flourishing and growing into profitability are those which stake out a coherent and distinctive niche within those eco-systems and use that distinctiveness to rope in an audience which really believes in the product and identifies with it. The success stories I’m inspired by are those like Politico – set up by émigrés from the Washington Post, Politico is written solely for political news junkies and has broken some of the most interesting political stories in Washington in recent years. In only two years Politico has grown a presence in Washington bigger than any other news organisation, while the general-interest magazines Time and Newsweek continue to cut back and lay off reporters. Politico has succeeded, just like Mark’s employer The Economist, by defining itself very narrowly. Rather like The Economist, too, it has a very distinctive house style, and its tone is very deliberately insiderish, designed to cultivate the sensibility of being in an in-crowd. Or take the online celebrity gossip magazine TMZ, run out of Los Angeles and the website which was the first to break the story of Michael Jackson’s death. Or The Register, a quirky, contrarian British tech newsletter which has cultivated a global following and which makes heaps of ad money. Just like Politico, both these sites have staked out a niche which they’re obviously passionate about, and attracted an enthusiastic audience from far and wide as a result. The tone of their reporting is deliberately insiderish and even cryptic, and many of their readers think of themselves as fans as much as readers.
Stake out a coherent niche producing a certain kind of news within the vast, almost limitless expanse of the internet and an audience can come flocking to you from anywhere in the world. Not only that, but it’s distinctive enough for them to want to identify with it, they’re much more likely to want to spread it around the place on social media. In some cases it means that they’re also likely to want to pay for it, but even if that’s not an option then targeted advertising and the changing nature of advertising demographics mean that advertisers are going to pay a premium for sure and certain knowledge of what an audience is really really interested in. And if you can’t make money out of sales or advertising, then it’s often possible to make money around a product that people really identify with. I’m amazed at the number of friends I have who only rarely buy The Guardian or read it for free online, but who seem quite happy to pay thirty pounds a month to meet other Guardian readers through its online dating service Soulmates. Stake out a distinctive enough niche, too, and the audience can become genuinely useful, because it actually knows things. The reason why TMZ was able to beat the world’s media to the news of Michael Jackson’s death, for example, is because it has an unrivalled team of sources working in hospitals who really love and trust TMZ, and who want to be involved in it’s operation. But this is a far cry from the mantras of the internet gurus about crowd-sourcing or ‘creating a conversation’ with the audience, which is really just old-fashioned customer engagement, and often deeply patronising. It’s about staking out a niche specialised enough to attract an audience which actually knows stuff – everything from astrophysics to Syrian politics to many of the subjects traditionally covered by investigative journalism – and then trying to make use of the information they have to offer.
My rule of thumb when talking about the future of the media is to ignore anyone who talks about networked anything – be it networked politics, networked journalism or anything else. Being part of the conversation isn’t enough, and talking up febrile buzzwords like mash-ups and crowd-sourcing are often rather desperate attempts by middle-aged executives to seem relevant and forward-thinking. If we really want to be bold and forward-thinking, my provocation would be to stand back and think about the product rather than the medium – to think about what news used to mean, what it means nowadays, and what it can mean in the future. Rather than all the hype and hokum about social media, I think, carving out specialised news areas is the best way to keep professional journalism alive, afloat and profitable in the years ahead.
James Harkin is the author of Niche: Why the market no longer favours the mainstream. This is a version of a talk presented by the author to the European News Journalists Network in Brussels on 10 October 2011.