Friday, March 27, 2009

Newsrooms, niches face off for future of journalism

It's repeated so often it's almost a mantra of the news-preneurs, journo-bloggers and futurists: Journalism will survive; it's the newspapers we're not sure about.

Fair enough. I agree with that sentiment, more or less. Given the relatively high (and rising) demand for news, people and organizations will increasingly compete to provide information in a crazy array of flavors and formats. And since we should all be agnostic when it comes to forms of distribution, our big, strong newsrooms should be able to keep us in the game, right?

Maybe. It's an open question whether there will continue to be a place for a general provider of news and information like us, or whether the future will be dominated by niche specialists. That's what the Web is, at some level: Like-minded people from anywhere on the planet getting together and talking amongst themselves. So news providers of the future might be the ones who cater to those groups, going deep, deep, deep on a single issue. If you're the best source of information for one of those in-groups, users will pay for your content and advertisers will go through you to reach 'em.

So what about our a-little-bit-of-everything news shops? Hard to say. Our competitive advantage is being more local than anyone else. We can't do national politics better than Politico or sports better than ESPN, but we've got everything on the latest brouhaha at city hall or the inside-the-locker-room moments for the local major league team.

We care more about what's going on in this one place than anybody else -- or should. If anything will keep us alive, that'll be it. Even at a local level, niche providers from intrepid bloggers to citizen activists to journalism startups will give us a run for our money. But that's a fight we can win, with our history and resources and people.

What we should do, then, is cultivate our beat reporters and let their expertise show even more than we have in the past. Rather than attempting to broaden their appeal, narrow it. Let them go deeper, nichier and more wonkish.

Forget being all things to all people. But on the beats we decide to cover, our reporters should be the no. 1 source of information. They should be more plugged in than anyone else in all the local organizations and issues that matter.

Our reporters, in other words, should each become niche news providers in their own right. Our niches might all be within a narrow geographic band, but you need to pay attention to them if you want to know what's going on.

Achieve that, and users will pay for our content and advertisers will go through us to reach them. And that just might be enough to keep us in the game.

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