Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Commercial: Nicheprint thinking

Relax. The newspaper's not dead. It's merely 'evolving'.

For example, the Really Interesting Group's Newspaper Club is up and running, offering bespoke papers on short runs, should you want them.

Local councils in London and beyond, have woken up to the fact that they can put out their own freesheets, to get their messages across.

Niche interests are starting to be served more effectively online, and it's on the web as this piece in the New York Review of Books says, that you can find the most interesting innovation in what 'newspapers' might become - generally, higher-profile journalists whose investigative work or writing is paid for directly by readers, or commissioned and supported by publications, organisations or foundations. It appears that while institutional investment may be dying, a bet is being made that reader investment will - partially - defray this.

Indeed, such is the enthusiasm for this tinkering that Umair Haque has written this admonitory post to the old newspaper industry.

There's a 'but' coming, of course. The 'but' is democracy, or thinking about it another way, serving the public sphere.

The problem is illustrated in the word 'niche'. This, of course, helps to make the business models for these new ideas for newspapers viable. What it does less well is explain how it helps to re-invent the newspaper as a public good that helps bind us together as a society, makes us more informed and helps to hold forms of authority to power account.

The NYRB article points to some examples where some public service journalism and reporting has been done; but these at the moment are still few and far between. Rare will it be, for example, the blog that can at the moment afford to invest in a story like the Telegraph did for MPs expenses.

I'm aware that a lot of libertarians and new media evangelists will shrug and say, 'so what?', strong in their faith that new models will spring up to serve these wider needs.

I'm not so sure, and the future of the industry will need both a commitment to - and more experiments like - Jeff Jarvis' at CUNY and the PA's call for public service reporting. And that, however much we might not like, might mean some state involvement. (Which is in part why calling for the wings of the BBC to be clipped is a dangerous path to start walking down. But that's another discussion.)

Most importantly, in all this experimentation, we shouldn't lose sight of what a newspaper can do - not just in terms of the delivery of information, but also in the sense of the wider society. As I've blogged before, using the word 'newspaper' conveys a set of implicit and explicit messages, many of which are tremendously valuable, especially the ones about binding us together into a wider whole. And despite it's age, I've not seen a serious repudiation of the points that Cass Sunstein was making around the 'Daily Me' well over a decade ago.

Newspapers are still the best way avoiding the scenario Sunstein paints. We should try to bake some of that thinking into our niche thinking.

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