Monthly Archives: September 2009

Seizing opportunities in niche journalism

When I read former washingtonpost.com executive editor Jim Brady’s Q and A on the Columbia Journalism Review site over the weekend, I kept nodding my head, over and over. He was making quite a name for himself as a leader in online journalism as I was making the transition from print to the Web in the middle of the decade. In my former online newsroom, as in his, quite a buzz was building over the possibilities. I was excited to be part of the cutting edge of news innovation. And then . . .

“But a lot of other organizations were starting to hire people, more videographers, more database developers, and were putting more emphasis on getting the journalists who were at the newspaper doing stuff for the Web site. I feel like that’s taken a step back with the financial tsunami that’s hit in the last year. It seems like there’s less innovation going on across the board in newsrooms right now. That’s probably the biggest concern, is that the recession set the transition to the Web back. . . .

“And I guess that’s the other thing I’m starting to see across the industry right now, is that the Web side collectively at news sites seems to have a lot less freedom than it did two or three years ago, largely because it’s a victim of its own success. Web sites grew, revenue at the Web sites grew, it became increasingly clear that the Web was the future, and I think at that point there was a decision made at a lot of newspaper companies that the newspaper has to run this thing, it’s just gotten too important. And I’m not sure that was good for innovation.”

Brady left the Post several months ago, as the separate print and Web operations were to be merged. He’s now a consultant for The Guardian, one of the leaders of news innovation that’s trying to tap into a Web-heavy news consuming audience in the U.S. One of his main points of contention is that general interest news products are ill-suited to master the niche orientation of the Web:

“You can certainly build traffic through your areas of expertise. But I don’t think that producing a paper that’s great at 30 percent of the subjects it covers and OK at the other 70 percent really has much of a future on the Web, because it’s just too hard to compete.”

For journalists outside the newsroom structure, this is a marvelous opportunity to really carve out that niche now, sooner rather than later. I’ve written about this many times before, here and here, so forgive me if this sounds like old news. Newspapers just aren’t able, or willing, to devote reporters to go deep on beats as they once did. So many of them are scrambling to be generalists more than ever. The old saw about newspapers favoring breadth over depth has become more pronounced.

There simply isn’t an excuse any longer for a post-newsroom journalist not to have a blog devoted to their beat, to their niche. Never has there been a better opportunity to do this. If you’re looking for work, even freelance work, this is even more imperative. And yet, I’ve had conversations with journalists like myself, people I know well and who know how much I preach about this topic, who still don’t contemplate doing this. They blog for “fun” or post online the same kinds of stories they would for a newspaper.

One of the best examples of local, niche-oriented blogs in my city defined the growing trend of niche journalism this way:

“Be it laid-off writers or verbose jerks like me, the rest of us will be left with the unenviable task of figuring out what the population wants to read. Many of us will fail trying, overwhelmed by the demands of new media, too inflexible to experiment, or because we just can’t write worth a darn. However, enough will succeed and before we know it, a new, more diverse world of media will have emerged.”

Some other good reads on the topic are here and here and here.

Advertisements

Great advice from bootstrapping journalists

On Wednesday I posted here about a young, enterprising journalist who has taken it upon himself to carry on a local news tradition abandoned by a venerable newspaper in his community.

He’s hopeful but realistic about his venture, and he should be. Mashable! profiles some veteran journalists who’ve done the same thing, and their perspectives are very similar after trying their hand at “indie” journalism (hat tip: Shawn Smith). Some typical words of advice:

It’s a tremendous amount of hard work. If you want a nine-to-five job don’t do it. Advertising won’t be able to support you unless you have very high traffic and that will take time to build. The noise level is huge and getting louder, it is ever more challenging to stand out and build traffic.”

“I say do it. Not everyone will succeed, but I really believe that business is about gut instincts, hustling, and taking risks. Launching your own product is a part of how the market works — it respects people who have an idea and figure out how to make it a reality.”

This is what I’ve come to believe after a few months of dabbling with my own local site. As people like Tracy Record at the West Seattle Blog have commented here and elsewhere, it’s a full-time commitment like nothing else. It’s got to be an all-consuming passion/obsession.

I’m still in a testing-the-waters stage as I balance this project with some freelancing and contract work for others. Someone wants to help me monetize my site, and I love the chance to cover news that’s not being done in my area.

“The biggest startup cost is most likely going to be your time.” This by far is my biggest concern. Where to find the time to do what needs to be done on so many fronts?

I’m flattered that my take on journalism bootstrapping has been described as “nuanced, pragmatic.” Because while doing local, or hyperlocal, news sounds simple enough, it is fraught with complications and obstacles that can be cold shocks to former newsroom journalists.

But I suspect quite a few of us would rather be trying experiments like this than clinging for dear life inside a decaying media institution.

Getting a jump on journalism bootstrapping

A young journalist who lost his job when his newspaper was shuttered earlier this year is now the proud sole owner of that organization’s Web site. Another example of hyperlocal news, and journalism bootstrapping, has been born, and it has some built-in advantages that give him a boost starting up.

Nick Sloan, 24, purchased the Kansas City Kansan from Gatehouse Media and will be a one-man news operation, covering suburban Wyandotte County. It helps that this is Sloan’s home turf, and that he’s got an established and recognizable news brand — “The Voice of Wyandotte County Since 1921.” He’s also retained two major advertisers. Still, he’s philosophically realistic about what he’s getting into:

“I’m not looking to get rich off of this. At the end of the day, if I make enough to satisfy what I need to do, I’ll call it a success. I’m not being paid by anybody to do this. I have to earn my entire way and for now I’ll have to be reporting and selling. It’s going to be fun, but we’ll see what happens.”

There’s no story too small to cover — students of the month, thefts from cars and the fate of a library. Sloan’s clearly got the energy and background to succeed. He’s going to need it. As you can tell from the frequency and wide-ranging topics of the posts, this is more than a job; this is his life.

Earlier this summer I raised the issue of whether the prospects for hyperlocal news were overhyped. This was the wrong question to ask, as I think back on it now, and much too abstract. One of my beefs with the current discourse about the future of journalism on the Web is that it has been hijacked by utopians spouting esoteric jargon that even they probably don’t understand.

The people down in the trenches experimenting with models that fit their communities and their ideas of doing the news are being lost in the discussion, except when the sages are looking for examples of their theories in action.

It’s important to outline the possibilities for hyperlocal news, and to offer words of caution. But it’s also unfair to fold any single effort either into insanely optimistic projections of success or into a dismissive argument that they are unlikely to reach their readership or earning potential.

Each project deserves to be looked at on its own merits, in the context of the unique community and niche it serves.

Clay Shirky — a wise, but occasionally maddening guru in my book — touched on the topic of news experimentation yesterday at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. Dan Kennedy writes:

“And he’s also right to say that, no, newspapers really can’t be replaced. When you think through the dilemma on his terms, it’s clear why that can’t happen — never again will commercial enterprises be compelled through scarcity to subsidize journalism at a high cost and at little benefit to them.

More than anything, though, he’s right that we have to try. It won’t be one big thing; it will be many little things. We’ll fall short. But it’s better than doing nothing. And the challenge couldn’t be more exciting or important.”

Ruminations on losing a grip on the future

A few links I’ve been reading about the Web, journalism, entrepreneurship and work, with my commentary on each. It’s good to step away occasionally from the gauntlet of deadlines I’ve got over the next few weeks.

If I seem overly blue today, I’m just dismayed by some of the activities coming out of Washington that will have a very profound impact on so many aspects of our lives. At a pivotal time — with recession, wars and technological and generational change transforming American society — elected officials are determined that the interests of those who finance their political careers, and not the public interest, will be served above all. Or they’re pandering to full-throated populist cries to reclaim the country for self-professed “real Americans” resolutely moored to a mythical past.

The bright future that so many envision with the advent of the Web and a new class of entrepreneurship is at stake, and it’s on the verge of being squandered.

And it’s been raining unremittingly for the last week in Atlanta, with very little end in sight. I have forgotten what the sunshine looks like.

FCC Chairman Proposes ‘Net Neutrality’ Rules:

“This is not about government regulation of the Internet. We will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity, and entrepreneurial activity.”

While I am very pleased to see this happening, my quick reading is that the Obama Administration is making only modest changes. Will they really be effective against the likes of AT & T, Comcast and Time Warner? Or will corporatist claims of “big government” cause a similar pushback that’s taking place on the health care reform front? As a budding Web entrepreneur looking at some unappealing health insurance options, my belief in the “change” agenda is not all that strong right now.

As someone quietly hopeful of more enlightened government policy on a topic that’s so important to the future of commerce and free expression, I’m getting tired of settling for whatever can be negotiated. The roaring partisans who don’t even wield power have the upper hand because they shout the loudest.

The Story Behind the Story:

“In this post-journalistic world, the model for all national debate becomes the trial, where adversaries face off, representing opposing points of view. We accept the harshness of this process because the consequences in a courtroom are so stark; trials are about assigning guilt or responsibility for harm. There is very little wiggle room in such a confrontation, very little room for compromise—only innocence or degrees of guilt or responsibility. But isn’t this model unduly harsh for political debate? Isn’t there, in fact, middle ground in most public disputes? Isn’t the art of politics finding that middle ground, weighing the public good against factional priorities? Without journalism, the public good is viewed only through a partisan lens, and politics becomes blood sport.”

Mark Bowden’s treatise in The Atlantic certainly reflects the weariness many feel about the highly polarized nature of politics in Washington, and the media beast that ravenously feasts on such unrelenting acrimony. No neutrality here. Web mavens have been shouting at old print hacks like me to ditch bland objectivity, and they are right to make this complaint — to a degree.

But I’m afraid that hard-edged, partisan, highly opinionated media will grow wildly, because that “middle ground” is vanishing faster than we imagine. If a viable conservative alternative to the Huffington Post ever emerges, then Bowden’s doomsday scenario will gain even more traction.

MSNBC is veering closer to being the same shrill, unyielding “news” outlet for liberals that Fox News is for conservatives (as entertaining as both are, in terms of sheer preposterous bombast). This is is not good news, of course, for the fate of the news. “Blood sport” is alive and well. It will comprise the future of media, and a healthy portion of we now call journalism.

Gary Vaynerchuk’s Startup Advice:

“People are chasing cash, not happiness. When you chase money, you’re going to lose. You’re just going to. Even if you get the money, you’re not going to be happy.”

This is the very chatty Internet wine entrepreneur who’s made a mint doing what he loves, and he’s a prime testament to the “follow your passions” school. For all of his insights and energy, however, I find the message stale. Not every “passion” or niche is potentially as lucrative as what he does. And there are a lot of bandwagon-jumpers, such as all those professing to be social media experts, who tend to reach for the shiny new viral career thing.

Still, I do follow his advice because I am one of those “passion” people. I am simply not happy if I cannot delve deep down into that niche that I love the most, as small as it is. I just wish Vaynerchuk and others would admit that one’s chances of enjoying his success are limited if his wisdom is heeded to the letter. What is missing from these peppy pronouncements is the admission that folks have to pay the bills, regardless of their passions.

The Happiest Occupations:

“The findings, psychologists say, reflect the importance of being free to choose the work you do and how you do it, the way you manage your time, and the way you respond to adversity. Regardless of occupational field, the survey suggests that seeking out enjoyable work and finding a way to do it on your own terms, with some control over both the process and the outcome, is likely for most people to fuel satisfaction and contentment.”

A riff on the same theme as above. I do find myself encouraged by these findings, but with so many people unemployed and scrambling to provide for their families, working “on your own terms” isn’t a very practical consideration right now.

Working Class Zero:

“Where was the Tea Party movement when the tax burden was shifted from the high end to the middle? Where were the patriots when Wall Street, backed in Congress by Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, rewrote securities laws so that the wonder boys of Lehman and A.I.G. could reduce home mortgages to poker chips at a trillion-dollar table?”

I’m not making any partisan claims here — neither major party offers much for anyone claiming to be an independent — but I’m fed up with all the ranting and raving about government spending and “socialism” that’s been dominating the political debate. This did not begin on Jan. 20, 2009. Or on Jan. 20, 2001, for that matter.

After reading James Stewart’s harrowing account of last September’s bailout crisis — we came closer to the brink of financial catastrophe than I ever realized — I cannot believe we have a political class, and a citizenry, still dug into the same entrenched positions, still making the same tired arguments.

Republicans decry big government when they did little to stop it as a Congressional majority, and with a president of their own party in office. They play to a Tea Party crowd that likes to draw Hitler mustaches on Obama faces when not Photoshopping him as a witch doctor, insisting he was born in Kenya and claiming he’s a Muslim.

Democrats refuse to make serious spending cuts to repair the financial system and economy and back up their costly health reform promises. They play to a union constituency that represents only a small percentage of American workers while paying lip service to entrepreneurs and small business owners who don’t appear to be any better off under health care mandates that could very well punish them more than help.

At least the majority is trying to govern, as opposed to those who obstinately want to block anything from taking place.

But this is no way to take a big step toward grabbing hold of the future. It is a guarantee of fumbling it away.

Some light posting on the horizon

A major deadline looms for a sports media project that is nearing fruition after months of discussion and planning.

While I like to post something here most weekdays, I won’t be able to meet that frequency for the next several weeks.

Examining issues relating to media professionals and how our work and careers are changing is an important and ongoing topic. I consider it a vital exercise in professional development.

Now I’m putting much of that new training, education and understanding into practice like never before.

So please stay tuned.

Readings: News entrepreneurs, the security of freelancing and taming digital distractions

What follows are some links rattling around in my brain, and between the sofa cushions, as I battle to meet a major project deadline and get a better handle on this scattershot life on the Web I’ve been leading. It’s been a romp this week, and by no means is Friday the end of my work week. But hey, I’m not complaining. The joy of deep immersion in the work I love has me getting the same adrenaline rush of breaking news hitting my old newsroom.

If you’ve got some time this weekend, these pieces are well worth your perusal. The first link is the second installment in Michael Massing’s gargantuan examination of the vastly changing news industry for The New York Review of Books (here’s Part I). The following delves into online news ventures and startups trying to replace the journalism that’s disappearing from newspapers:

A New Horizon for the News: “What we do have is a tremendous increase in enthusiasm and initiative that, in the age of the Internet, counts for more than transmitters and printing presses. The retreat of the giant corporations and conglomerates is creating the opportunity for fresh structures to emerge. It remains to be seen whether foundations, wealthy donors, and news consumers will step forward to support them. . . .The opening won’t last forever. Lurking in the wings is a potential new class of media giants. Google, Yahoo, MSNBC, and AOL, all have vast resources that could finance a new oligopolistic push on the Web.”

How journalists can become successful news entrepreneurs: “Great reporters are resourceful. They don’t take no for an answer. If one official won’t answer a question, they’ll go find a document or dig a little more until the official feels compelled to answer. What ever it takes to get the story. No wall is too high or too thick once a good reporter sets his or her mind to reporting a particular story. That drive is the first pre-requisite to being an entrepreneur.”

Can Anybody Pull Off Long Form on the Web? “Salon also thinks that its content—mostly long-form, originally reported stories about politics, entertainment, technology and other topics—is just too costly given the level of interest from advertisers. It believes that advertisers will be more excited by shorter, more real-time pieces.”

Steering Clear of Writers Mills: “For those who feel the need to write something, anything, start a blog. Create a newsletter. Put together a fanzine. Just do something that belongs to you, so that should something come of it, you’re the one benefiting. Let the big time investors do their own work for a change.”

10 Reasons Why Freelancing is the Best Job Security: “Freelancers get exposed to a diverse assortment of ideas, business models, workflow processes, and technologies. This helps you to stay fresh and on the cutting-edge of the best practices in your field.”

50 things that are being killed by the internet: “When was the last time you spent an hour mulling the world out a window, or rereading a favourite book? The internet’s draw on our attention is relentless and increasingly difficult to resist.” (the ones that hit home for me are nos. 9, 12, 14, 21, 27, 29 and 50)

The Hierarchy of Digital Distractions: “Emailing, writing, tweeting, designing, browsing, taking calls, Skyping, Facebooking, RSS Feeding – all blurred into a single technological trance. I seem to switch randomly from one to the other. But actually is there a subtle hierarchy in this cloud? Do I prefer some distractions over others? I think so.” (via Bert DuMars)

Finding a comfort zone for personal branding

After long being in a profession that stressed humility if not virtual anonymity, I’m finding that the necessity of this age — individuals constantly marketing and “branding” themselves — is taking some getting used to.

But I was encouraged last night while watching the debut of a national cable program hosted by a former colleague, someone who’s been able to blend the personal “brand” he has developed out of the beat he’s long cultivated as a journalist. He’s done plenty of TV work before, but this show has his name on it, and now he’s sitting in the captain’s seat. He’s offered his opinions on programs and in blogs in the past, but is opening up more in this new role.

This is an example that has helped me get more comfortable with stepping out from behind the shadows of my old newspaper byline, establishing my own name, and upgrading my expertise. For a long-time print journalist, adopting a personal public relations plan is an acquired habit.

Public relations executive Jeremy Porter poses the essential question: “What can you do that nobody else is doing?” as a focal point for his approach:

“The best way you can position yourself as an expert is to share your knowledge and help others. If you give your ideas away for free, you’ll reach a lot more people – and they’ll start to think of you as the expert in your particular niche. Always be asking yourself, ‘What do I know that would help this person? How can I help them get ahead or improve the performance of their programs?’ It might be as simple as making an introduction for them to somebody in your network they want to meet. Pay it forward and hope for the best.”

A challenge I find with a wealth of experience is to avoid dwelling on that background and being too settled in the present. The simple act of labeling what it is that you do should always be cast with the future in mind:

“If you want to be able to make money doing what you love, you have to (and I repeat) have a future plan or destination. Whether you’re a consultant, entrepreneur, you’re currently employed or you’ve been laid off, the same idea applies: position yourself today to become a player in that area tomorrow.”