Monthly Archives: July 2009

From Newspapers to Nichepapers

For some time, I’ve been feeling a vague sense of guilt over the direction our organization’s online blogs have taken.  By strict definition they’re no longer blogs but online news releases and feature stories.

It’s my fault as much as anybody else’s. Roughly five years ago, when I started Extension Daily, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s first weblog, I vowed to pattern my material after one of the grand marshals of blogging, Andrew Sullivan.  A big chunk of my blogs was gleaned from sources that inevitably complemented Extension-related material but that typically quoted experts far removed from Extension- or even land grant university-related work.  

My experiment with true-blue blogging ended up being short-lived. I suppose my concerns about deviating too far from standard Extension practices prompted a return to the older approach of concentrating on longer, feature-type information, replete with quotes from our subject-matter experts.

And I’m beginning to regret it. And thanks to an excellent article on which I stumbled entirely by accident this morning, my regrets are confirmed.  

Harvard Business Publishing blogger Umair Haque openly challenges this approach. His piece, titled The Nichepaper Manifesto, targets conventional newspapers, but what he says aptly applies to what I’m doing – or not doing.

Haque contends that the 20th century news that distinguishes old-line newspapers isn’t fit for the 21st century.

I think he’s right.

It is unfit because it fails to educate, enlighten and inform, Haque contends.

On the other hand, nichepapers are succeeding because “they have built a profound mastery of a tightly defined domain — finance, politics, even entertainment — and offer audiences deep, unwavering knowledge of it.”

They’re succeeding because they are built on rules that comport more closely with 21st century needs. 

Instead of merely reporting news, nichepapers impart knowledge, lasting meaningful knowledge.   

Nichepapers also emphasizes dialogue with readers — what Haque describes as commentage instead of the one-way commentary that distinguished conventional newspapers.  This commentage enables readers to “fill gaps, plug holes, and thicken the foundations of knowledge.”

Haque especially hits close to home with this observation: 

Many newspapers have comments — so what? Almost none are having a dialogue with commenters — who are stuck in a twilight zone where they can only talk to one another.  Nichepapers, in contrast, are always having a deep dialogue with readers.

If the previous observation smarted, the following one qualifies as a belly punch:

Topics, not articles.  That’s why Nichepapers develop topics — instead of telling quickly-forgotten stories.  When Talking Points Memo exposed the Bush administration’s series of political motivated firings, it did so in a series of posts that let the story develop, surface, thicken and climax. Stories are for information — topics are for knowledge.

Ouch!  Yes, it smarts, but it doesn’t change the fact that Haque is spot on with his observations. 

 If there is a bottom line to be drawn from his comments, it’s that readers no longer seek news; rather, they demand specialized knowledge products.

That makes perfect sense to me.  In fact, after finishing Haque’s piece, the thought occurred to me that I enjoy the New York Times not because the masthead reads “New York Times” but because the online version carries specialized topics that relate to my work, especially its sections on health, books, education and technological trends.

Now, if I can just apply the same logic to my blogs.

How to Spark an Epidemic

Ever heard of William Dawes?  Chances are you haven’t.

Dawes attempted the same feat as Paul Revere on that fateful April night in 1775: He tried to warn his fellow colonists in the Massachusetts villages of Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown and Waltham of an impending British attack.

He failed miserably.  Why?  Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of The Tipping Point, contends that Dawes, unlike Paul Revere, was not a connector.  A committed patriot?  Yes, undoubtedly so.  But a connector?  Not by a long shot.  Dawes may have been a decent enough man and a committed patriot, but as a sentinel of liberty — well, he appears to have failed miserably.  And he failed because he apparently lacked the social connections that Revere enjoyed in abundance.

Paul Revere:  The Connector’s Connector

Revere was the ultimate connector, someone who wore many hats and who, borrowing David Hackett Fischer’s apt phrase, possessed “an uncanny ability for being at the center of events.”

Just how central was Revere to the events of the day? Among his many public responsibilities, he served as an official in the city’s public market, as the municipal health officer and as a coroner for Suffolk County. In response to a ravaging fire that destroyed parts of Boston, he also organized the Massachusetts Fire Insurance Company.   

Revere was also one of only two men who served on five of the seven pro-revolutionary Whig organizations in Boston.  He acted as a vital conduit among all those revolutionary groups scattered along the seaboard between New Hampshire and Philadelphia.

Revere was a classic connector because he knew how to bring people together.

Using extraordinary ability, he sparked a social epidemic that changed the course of human history.  Poor Dawes, by contrast, remains only a curious historical footnote.

Another Critical Element: Mavens

Not surprising, Gladwell believes that connectors such as Revere typically play critical roles in the making of social epidemics. But they are only one factor.  Equally important are the mavens. 

Maven is a Yiddish word for someone who possesses vast knowledge.  Gladwell characterizes them as people who are “interested and curious about everything.”  Mavens don’t just enjoy accumulating information: they also strive to help others by passing on this information.   They are the kind of people who not only read Consumer Reports but also write back to correct erroneous information.

People look to mavens as clearing houses of useful, critical information.  Like connectors, they help spark word-of-mouth epidemics, Gladwell says.

Equally essential are persuaders. They are the ones who typically provide the compelling arguments to convince us that the message or the product is worth the cost. In a manner of speaking, they help seal the deal, often providing the final impetus that tips the balance. 

Gladwell makes some strong arguments about the synergistic effects behind social epidemics.

We Cooperative Extension professionals and educators would do well to heed them.

For my perspective, this raises several questions.

First, aren’t all longstanding and successful Cooperative Extension educational programs essentially social epidemics that, for whatever reason, have been sustained for years, if not decades?  Granted, we seldom think of them this way, but aren’t they?

Likewise, don’t all of these programs reflect in some way the underlying effects of connectors, mavens and persuaders?

A Shining Example

Master Gardeners a prime example. I suspect the program has succeeded so spectacularly within the last couple of decades because it appeals to so many connectors, mavens and persuaders.  To put it another way, it simultaneously offers connector-, maven- and persuader-rich opportunities.

It is a people-oriented program tailored to connectors —people like Revere who possess an extraordinary ability to forge bonds with others.  Likewise, its subject matter is specialized enough to appeal to mavens.

Finally, enough influential people — persuaders — apparently have completed Master Gardeners with a strong enough impression to share their positive experiences with other people.

And that raises a final question: If what Gladwell contends is true — if all successful Extension programs begin as social epidemics sparked by connectors and spread by mavens and persuaders — shouldn’t all Cooperative Extension programs in the future be designed with these critical players in mind?