Tag Archives: Nichepapers

Finding Our Groove in The Niche

Yes, I’ll concede that Chris Anderson may harbor some anti-media bias.

The editor-in-chief of Wired eschews terms such as newspaper and media because he considers them outmoded — relics of the last century. And speaking as a product of 20th century media training, I think Anderson is right — dead right. (See my previous diatribe on demassification for my rationale.)

Granted, there always will be a place for the kind of reporting that once distinguished traditional journalism, even as an increasingly greater share of online content is generated by amateurs. 

Even so, while some forms of traditional journalism will survive, they will be mixed up with the other information that is increasingly disseminated through social filters.   As Anderson says,

I read lots of articles from mainstream media but I don’t go to mainstream media directly to read it.  It comes to me, which is really quite common these days.  More and more people are choosing social filters for their news rather than professional filters.  We’re turning out television news, we’re turning out newspapers. And we still hear about the important stuff, it’s just that it’s not like this drumbeat of bad news.  It’s news that matters.  I figure by the time something gets to me it’s been vetted those I trust.  So the stupid stuff that doesn’t matter is not going to get to me.

Yes, it is a brave new world out there — and an intimating one too.  And this raises the question: What will this mean for organizations that have  felt more at home with older media – organizations such as  Cooperative Extension , which have traditionally looked to these older media to disseminate their messages? How will they manage to compete in a world with so many players offering so many products, whatever these happen to be?

I admit I remain an incorrigible pessimist about most things.  But on the subject of the online economy and Cooperative Extension’s place in it, I remain cautiously optimistic.

Why?

First, because this is one area in which our institutional mindset may work in our favor. 

As Anderson points out, most people blog for nonmonetary reasons — either because they want to draw attention to themselves or because they feel a passion for what they write about.  Extension is teeming with legions of passionate educators, quite a few of whom also write well.  Put these two together — passion and a knack for expression— and you have the makings of several highly effective and competitive blogs. 

Second, as Anderson observes, the default price of the emerging online economy is zero.  Compared with the older, conventional economy, an astonishing share of the offerings is free.

Free is the force of gravity.  If we decide to resist it, then somebody else will compete with something that is free.  The marketplace follows the underlying economics. You can be free or you can compete with free. That’s the only choice there is. 

Until recently, people have generally assumed that anything free was low-rate compared to its priced counterpart.  The online economy is changing this.  And this change of mind ultimately may work to the distinct advantage of Cooperative Extension-related products and services.

Freeness may also benefit us in another way — the same way it already is aiding other public and private entities: by helping us better leverage our fee-based efforts.   

Anderson points out how private companies are learning to use free content to attract audiences.  They’ve learned it’s to their advantage not to charge for the most popular stuff.  Instead, they charge for the “niche stuff” that people are willing to pay for.

As I see it, Cooperative Extension administrators and educators should invest considerably more thought into how our most popular stuff, such as publications, videos and other materials, can be used to whet our audiences’ appetites for the more enriched, specialized forms of instruction — the “niche stuff,” which could include webinars, workshops and field days — the stuff for which they would gladly pay.

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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.