News business gazes longingly at a field of holes

April 18, 2008

Once, news was the hard currency people relied on to transact their broadest kind of community business — the routine exchange of information and ideas about what is and what ought to be. Because the industry made its money by gathering large audiences with little in common except where they lived, journalism naturally sought out topics of wide interest and spoke with language and values that made some sense to everybody.

That was the theory, anyway. The reality was different; news agendas were skewed to privilege the powerful and ignore people who didn’t have advertisers hungering to reach them. Media often peddled banalities and stereotypes, and rarely stood up when it was more expedient to sit down. But for all its flaws, news was still a medium of interaction that forced unlike people to acknowledge a connectedness and brought them together into a kind of civic embrace.

That was then. Now, the news industry has seen the future, and it’s small, long and narrow. The industry’s new strategic goal is called verticality, and its direction is downward. Verticality calls for news organizations to probe relentlessly for audience micro-segments — from Little League moms to old car enthusiasts — and drill down to serve them with whatever newsy stuff, chat rooms, lifestyle advice, shopping tips and, above all, advertising they might want.

Small is big, that’s the new strategic line. It was the message James Moroney III, publisher of the Dallas Morning News and vice president of Belo Corp., owner of five newspapers and 21 TV stations, delivered this month to the international online journalism symposium in Austin, Texas.  It was also the message last fall from Sue Clark-Johnson, newspaper division president of Gannett Co., the country’s biggest chain, at the Knight-Batten journalism innovations conference in Washington.

“Some Wall Street analysts have suggested the fate of metro newspapers is doomed because they can’t connect with and serve their communities as well as smaller newspapers,” Clark-Johnson said. “Well, yes they can – if they also act like smaller newspapers.”

Gannett, she said, has transformed its 85 daily newsrooms into “information centers” emphasizing “local and hyperlocal news.” With them, web sites of truly microbial size and ambition: in Cincinnati, 129 microsites serving 129 neighborhoods.

For Belo’s Dallas flagship, Moroney said, the strategy is “super-serving niche audiences,” creating microsites for high school sports or whatever interest draws people together. “Overwhelm the microcosm,” he said. “Niche the niche, and then niche the niche of the niche.”

Moroney’s Dallas paper has 17 superlocal print editions alongside 50 microsites, “granular” in focus, he said. The result: coverage structured around “deep, deep verticals.”

Now, as a business matter, will this work? That’s hard to say. True, metro papers have been devastated by losing automotive, real estate, retail and help-wanted advertising to targeted web sites that specialize in everything from apartments to imported cars.

But even if verticality works for focused, nationwide ad sites, will it make tiny, hyperspecialized information kiosks profitable? Will advertisers pay? Maybe, but if the only way to get them is through deep discounts and costly sales staffs, it’ll never pay the bills.

Besides, newspapers won’t be alone drilling these holes. Next February, the country’s 1,812 TV stations get a windfall: thousands of new channels, part of the huge industry movement to the digital frequency tier. Local broadcasters — and their web sites — will be desperate for cheap content for those channels. And they’ll be eyeing the same hyperlocal audience slivers newspapers are coveting.

But we’re forgetting something. Even if all this verticality “works,” what would we have? What would become of all those proud claims newspeople repeat at their conventions about public service, truth-telling, watch-dogging? Replying to a question in Austin, Belo’s Moroney said his paper, which won a Pulitzer for international reporting in 1994 for a sensational series about violence against women, probably wouldn’t undertake such a project again because it was coverage the paper could no longer afford and was not uniquely positioned to supply.

There we were, at a conference filled with foreign journalists, and the head of the monopoly daily in Dallas, one of the richest cities in the most powerful country on earth, was saying he had no choice but to leave coverage of the world to others. His organization has more pressing concerns, serving the public by lowering its gaze and narrowing its mind.

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