Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Branded cooperatives - the future of news?

The savviest PR person I know told me over lunch that well-known journalists on big-name papers are worried about the long-term health of their industry. It reminded me of the New York Times columnist (? I didn't record the link) who confessed last week to only reading his own paper online - and who then expressed the hope that everybody wouldn't start doing that, since that wouldn't pay his salary.

The threat of blogs is not really that they're on-line; the Times and the Wall Street Journal and Fortune have gone online, too. What's different is that new media brands are built around individual voices, which then scale out to a small group, but not much beyond that. It's not a new phenomenon; I suspect most big papers grew out of newsletters written by one passionate journalist. The difference is the scale at which it can happen, and the rate at which "natural selection" can discover and grow new competitors. I also suspect that the new media may not grow into empires in the same way that the print media did.

I noticed it first with Wonkette. The site was started by the eponymous Ann Marie Cox; the first hand-off I saw was to Choire while The Wonkette was off writing a book. Nowadays Greg Beato has a byline too, but the voice is the same. This is a good way to get leverage from the brand that the founder developed, without them having to be keyboarding 7 x 24. The same was the case with BoingBoing; Mark Frauenfelder did all the early posting (2000), was then joined by Cory Doctorow in 2001, and then the other three.

The Wonkette site is part of Nick Denton's Gawker Media stable, but the association is under-played; it's visible at the top of the side-column, but not on the mast-head. I've clicked across to some of the other Gawker sites, on the premise that they'd have the same sensibility and I might enjoy them, too. (They did, and I didn't.) This is a way to build a web of mutually reinforcing sites without weakening the identity of any of them; and more importantly, it's a way to get economies of scale where it counts, in ad sales and back-end technology. Servers scale, writers don't.

This suggests that a small cooperative of writers, perhaps aggregated loosely into a larger constellation, will be a sustained pattern for on-line media. It plays to the characteristics of the medium: barriers to entry are low, and personality is the currency (convertible into ad revenue). It also suggests that the money-making opportunities will be largely invisible to the reading public: it's a stock of ad-space and a server farm, not a mast-head.

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