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The Nichepaper Manifesto

Dear Newspaper Magnates,

So you’re going to try and charge people for news yet again. Cart, meet horse.

Journalists didn’t make 20th century newspapers profitable — readers did. 20th century newspapers were never supernormally profitable because of what they wrote: it was the natural monopoly dynamics of classifieds that fueled massive margins.

In the 21st century, it’s time, again for newspapers to learn how to profit with stakeholders — instead of extracting profits from them. The 21st century’s great challenge isn’t selling the same old “product” better: it’s learning to make radically better stuff in the first place. Here’s how to begin building 21st century newspapers.


20th century news isn’t fit for 21st century society.
 Yesterday’s approaches to news are failing to educate, enlighten, or inform. The Fourth Estate has fallen into disrepair. It is the news industry itself that commoditized news by racing repeatedly to the bottom. It’s time for a better kind of news.

A new generation of innovators is already building 21st century newspapers: nichepapers. The future of journalism arrived right under the industry’s nose. Nichepapers, as the name implies, own the microniche. (Here’s a nice, timely discussion of Nichepapers by Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books.)

Nichepapers are different because they have built a profound mastery of a tightly defined domain — finance, politics, even entertainment — and offer audiences deep, unwavering knowledge of it.

Nichepapers aren’t a new product, service, or business model. They are a new institution. They’re a living example of the institutional innovation that is the key to 21st century business. They’re not the same old newspaper, sold a different way. They are 21st century newspapers, built on new rules, that are letting radical innovators reinvent what “news” is.

Here are eight of the most essential:

Knowledge, not news. Newspapers strive to give people the news. Next stop, commodity central. Nichepapers strive to impart meaningful, lasting knowledge instead.

Commentage, not commentary. Newspapers dictate to their reader what news and opinion are. Nichepapers co-create knowledge through “commentage.” Commentage is the kid sister of reportage: it is the art of curating comments to have a dialogue with the audience — because the audience can fill gaps, plug holes, and thicken the foundations of knowledge. Many newspapers have comments — so what? Almost none are having a dialogue with commenters — who are mostly stuck in a twilight zone where they can only talk to one another. Nichepapers, in contrast, are always having deep dialogues with readers.

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 politically 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.

Scarcity, not circulation. Newspapers strive for circulation, by telling the same stories in the same ways — in slightly different places. Nichepapers strive for scarcity: to develop a perspective, analytical skills, and storytelling capabilities that are inimitable by rivals.

Now, not then. Newspapers give you the news then. Nichepapers give you knowledge now. Why have weekly columns and daily articles — that then get lost in the wilderness of a vast archive? It’s an arcane, obsolete way to produce content. Nichepapers develop topics of conversation, not individual stories, and let them co-evolve with readers.

Provocation, not perfection. Newspapers seek perfection: perfect grammar, perfect ledes, perfect headlines. Nichepapers seek provocation instead. Sometimes, yes, that provocation is mere titillation. But more often than not it’s authentic provcation: nichepapers provoke us to think; they challenge us; they educate us in ways that newspapers stopped doing long ago.

Snowballs, not sell-outs. Newspapers long ago sold out to advertisers, PR flaks, powerful “sources,” and lobbyists. When was the last time the WSJ bit the hand that fed it? Why is the Post’s editorial page so predictably tepid? Nichepapers haven’t sold out — and if their economic promise delivers, they won’t have to. They “sell in” instead: they pitch topics and stories to the community, and let the best ones snowball — through contributions like tips, criticisms, and corrections.

Tasks, not tech.
 Nichepapers aren’t about technology. They might use a blog post, vlog post, podcast, wiki, series of tweets, or a long-form article — or all of these, all at once. They are tech-neutral, using whatever works best for a given task.

Here are four models for Nichepapers that apply these rules in different ways. Each is named after an archetypal historical newspaper — because the key to reinvention is getting back to the basics of making better stuff:

The Sentry — Talking Points Memo
The incomparable TPM is the gold standard of a Nichepaper. It’s also a very specific kind: a sentry, always patrolling the political arena for malfeasance, misbehavior, and broken promises. By combining reportage, commentage, opinion, and muckraking, TPM delivers perhaps the most hard-hitting, most persistent, and most fearless investigative political journalism in America today.

The Chronicle — Perez Hilton. Perez Hilton is the first 21st century gossip columnist. He chronicles whatever’s lewd, crude, and most likely to be viewed in the entertainment world — in such excruciating detail, the result is a paradox: the lurid becomes banal. Yet, like TPM, Perez is unafraid to challenge the status quo, persistently, chronically, and often, funnily.

The Intelligencer — Business InsiderHenry Blodget used to be an equity analyst, so it’s no surprise that his latest venture, Business Insider, crosses the line from pure news into deeper analysis — intelligence. Though BI often gets it wrong (here’s Joe Weisenthal arguing that bribes create value, for example), the analysis is what counts: it gives readers more food for thought per word than News 1.0.

The Pioneer — The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post is perhaps the classic Nichepaper — and what makes it different is that it’s always pioneering new ideas, concepts, stories, and angles. The HuffPo’s perspective is politically liberal — and that’s its domain. But it is the pioneering that makes the HuffPo different. And it’s open to pioneering new ideas from nearly anyone — as long as their ideas are good enough to matter.

Those rules and models above aren’t the only ones, or the best ones. They are avenues that radical innovators are already exploring to reconceive news for the 21st century. And they suggest what the endgame of news 2.0 looks like.

The 21st century news organization is a portfolio of the different kinds of nichepapers. An Intelligencer for healthcare, a Pioneer for education, a Chronicle for finance and entertainment — that’s what the future of news looks like. Why?

Nichepapers are the future of news because their economics are superior. 
All the Nichepapers above are “real” enterprises, with staff, offices, and fixed and variable costs. Nichepapers offer more bang for the buck: greater benefits for far less cost. Readers get more, better, and faster content — while publishers realize lower capital intensity, lower distribution, marketing, and production costs, and less risk. What is different about them is that they are finding new paths to growth, and rediscovering the lost art of profitability by awesomeness.

And that’s really the point.

Profitability can’t be recaptured from a commodity. Newspapers used to be yesterday’s most profitable industry. Warren Buffett made his fortune by investing in newspapers, yesterday. Yet, today, business model innovation, aka “monetization,” is the surest, quickest path to self-destruction. Charging once more for the same old “content” — as argued for by David Simon, in an impassioned CJR article — will inevitably lead newspapers exactly where it led banks investment “banks” and automakers: into economic implosion.

To reinvent the buying and selling of news, it’s necessary first to reconceive the making of news. The AP’s latest attempt at business model innovation, for example, is a heavyweight “rights management” system for the same old stuff. But protecting yesterday’s “product” is exactly what prevented the music industry and Hollywood from rediscovering the art of value creation.

Nichepapers are, above all, “M” organizationsToday’s radical innovators are confronting the truth that, because it failed the fundamental test of being meaningful, yesterday’s news is, well, yesterday’s news.

Nichepapers, in contrast, do meaningful stuff that matters the most. The great failing of 20th century news is that monopoly power became a substitute for meaningful value creation. At root, that’s the lesson that newspapers are learning the hard way.

Umair and the Edge Economy Community

Umair Haque is Director of Havas Media Labs and author of Betterness: Economics for Humans and The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business. He is ranked one of the world’s most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50. Follow him on twitter @umairh.

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