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.

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