Imagine a news Web site that’s a portal to everything people used to read in newspapers plus a bunch of things that newspapers were never able to provide. A cool idea, I think, but first it requires newspapers to embrace two provocative ideas:
- The mass audience is dead.
- The product of newspaper Web sites is not news.
No more mass audience
Radio lost the mass audience first when TV proliferated. Gone were the days when a large swathe of the American audience was listening to “Gunsmoke” or the “Avenger” on radio. TV started as a mass medium because there were few channels, so again, everybody seemed to watch “Laugh-In” or The Ed Sullivan Show.” But then as more and more TV networks started, people fell into niches. They could watch networks about just food or gardening or do-it-your-selfing or history. Few shows could garner the huge audiences of the past, but collectively, networks developed tight groups of devoted fans.
The same is happening now with the transition of newspapers to the Web. The old newspaper thinking was to reach a large, broad audience, which was often not highly invested in the news. That meant editors picked story topics that would appeal to the many, not the few. The Web, however, gives news organizations a chance to reach a lot of small but highly interested niches. New thinking is needed.
BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis called this the “mass of niches” in his recent book, “What Would Google Do?”
A colleague of mine, graphic artist Darren Sanefski, coined the word “hyperinterest” to explain how newspaper Web sites could cater to this “mass of niches” on the Web. He was playing on the term hyperlocal, which has come to mean a news Web site that is tailored specifically to a geographic area, such as a town, a city or even a neighborhood.
The thing is, people don’t always or only define themselves geographically. Some define themselves by their interests — skeet shooter, video gamer, foodie. Others define themselves by their needs — person in search of a baby sitter, newcomer to a community, job hunter. Still others define themselves by political interests, or personal agendas or avocation – Democrat, tree hugger, soup kitchen volunteer. At different times, people may define themselves through any of these criteria or other ones, depending on what they need at that moment.
What if newspapers’ Web site helps these readers find what they wanted. To do that, news organizations must figure out what their product is.
What is a news organization’s product?
I’m guessing most in the newspaper industry think they sell news. I’d argue news was never the product even in the halcyon days when multiple newspapers competed in one city. In those days, newspapers delivered ads wrapped in news to readers. The product was really the ads, not the news.
Today, as newspapers try to transition to the Web, part of the product may still be ads. But part could be convenience.
Last week, I blogged about Tim Windsor’s question on the Nieman Journalism Lab blog about whether online news content is like bottled water. He asked how bottled water companies could essentially sell something most people in industrialized world can get for free. My answer: Bottled water companies aren’t selling the water; they’re selling convenience.
So what if newspaper Web sites offered convenience. People read newspapers for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with news. Some like the coupons, the lottery numbers, the comics, the crossword puzzle. Anyone who has worked at a daily newspaper for any length of time knows that a quick way to elicit hundreds of angry phone calls is to repeat the same Jumble two days in a row.
A portal Web site
Imagine if a newspaper’s Web site didn’t look like a news Web site at all. Instead, when you entered the site, you faced a question: What do you want to do? (I’m picturing it almost like Facebook’s “What’s on Your Mind?”)
You could pick from a pull-down list of choices — find out the weather, read the top story, find the movie reviews, do a crossword puzzle, post a video game review, view today’s front page.
You’d also be able to type in what you wanted if none of the options met your needs. And you could bypass this search option, and navigate the site yourself if you desired. It would be like a typical news Web site search feature, but on steroids.
You also could still reach the site in traditional ways: through Google searches or by selecting from topical menus. But these menus wouldn’t mimic newspaper sections — features, sports, news. They would include a whole world of options.
The newspaper wouldn’t create all these options. It would link to them, creating this rich one-stop-shopping for everything a person in your community needs to make life easier. Remember, we’re selling convenience.
A few examples of what I mean:
- A new at-home mom moves into the community, so she types in “find other moms” into the newspaper’s Web page search feature. She’s directed to a parenting topic page that includes a link to the Meetup.com list of moms groups for that locality; a list of recent parenting stories from the wires and that newspaper; a list of all the local moms’ groups.
- A crossword puzzle junkie can’t get his fix with just one a day in print. So he accesses the gaming portal on the newspaper’s Web site and reaches multiple puzzles to confound him plus chances to play Scrabble or Sudoku. The newspapers doesn’t create the games; it finds a way to curate them or link to them.
- A video gaming enthusiast wants to sound off on this great game she just played. She can reach not only a video gaming blog, which offers reviews from readers, staffers and others, but a portal to an already-existing video gaming community. Plus she’ll find aggregation of a variety of the best video-gaming blogs and sites from around the world.
- A member of the community happens onto the site and wants to know what’s the top story, based on what other readers’ think. He is connected to a list of stories that are getting the most comments as well as a list of stories that other readers have picked as the top reads in a Digg-like “most popular in last 24 hours” fashion. (A bit like the way it works on Times People at The New York Times.)
The news Web site becomes not just about news — but about everything. The news site isn’t selling news or ads; it’s selling convenience. Gems on the Web site aren’t hidden but easy to reach. Depending on what the user clicks on, the site suggests other sites, links, blogs, news stories in much the same way that Amazon.com suggests books or videos or Facebook suggests “people you may know.”
All this would need a very robust search function, much more robust than I’ve found on many newspaper Web sites. But it’s possible. I use Google like this all the time, by typing in questions of what I want. I usually get great results. (For example, I just typed “Where to find tax forms” into Google and reached more than 60 million results in .50 seconds, the first of which was the IRS tax forms.)
One final point: Each of these “hyperinterest” pages will have limited, but highly interested appeal. In other words, newspapers can’t expect huge traffic to each. The idea is to create highly interested small groups of readers. One thousand highly interested readers are better than 5,000 who care only a bit.
The impact is cumulative. In a way, it’s like saving money. The easy way to slash your budget is to stop paying your mortgage, likely your biggest expense. But then you’d lose your home. So the only realistic way to cut costs is to trim small amounts of many expenses. In the end it adds up.
That’s how hyperinterest pages would work. Each might have a relatively small but growing following, but collectively they would contribute to a large readership. And because these readers are highly interested, they would spread the word about your site for free. That’s just how it works on Twitter, where one friend tells two people, who tell two more people and so on.