Posted on September 28th, 2007 No comments
A few years ago when our New Products Group at The Bakersfield Californian started throwing around terms like “social networking” and “online persona,” we were met with a lot of blank stares from our colleagues. It must have all sounded so theoretical and foreign. But fortunately they trusted that we knew what we were talking about. We went on to be one of the first newspapers to show how social networking is the perfect tool for serving local audiences, and we created a technical foundation to help others do the same.
It’s funny how quickly things can change. Now it’s rare that a week goes by when I don’t read a press release about a new newspaper-run social network. And I’m increasingly hearing about separately-branded niche sites, which is something we tried early on with sites like The Northwest Voice, Bakotopia and others. Some of these, like Pioneer Newspaper’s The JHub, use our technology, while others like Dan Wheeler’s BigLickU (don’t worry, it’s safe to click that link!) or Morris Communications’ Savannahnow use other technology and, increasingly, open source solutions such as Drupal.
A few months ago, it really struck me how far this industry has come. I was speaking at an event along with Jennifer Carrol, vice president for new media content at Gannett. She talked about some of Gannett’s efforts to reach out to underserved audiences, including pet owners and moms. Their Indymoms.com site was particularly interesting to me because I’ve been telling people for years about how my wife (a mom of two) has little time to read the newspaper, but rushes to the Boulder RocknMoms Yahoo Group whenever we need a recommendation for a plumber, information on food allergies and a variety of other subjects.
Now, Editorsweblog cites a report that Gannett’s niche Web sites, of which Indymoms is only one, are set to bring in $3 million per year. And this is is happening during a year when mainstream newspapers are seeing massive declines in circulation and revenues.
There are many ways to interpret this data, but my personal view is that less time and more choices push people toward niche products. And they stay with them because they solve problems in ways that are more in tune with the changing rythms of their daily lives. This is the gist of a presentation I just gave to members of the Georgia Associated Press News Council.
There’s no way to buck the niche trend because it’s being driven by forces that are outside of the control of media companies and the advertisers they depend on. For this reason, I believe the future of the newspaper industry lies in giving every niche audience possible a little place of their own, while still maintaining the ability to aggregate and segment audiences for advertising, and to deliver vital news and information that’s relevant to everyone.
The implications of this are staggering if you take it to its logical conclusion: we must operate more like Yahoo Groups or Ning than a traditional newspaper. Instead of relying on one portal for everyone, we must have literally thousands of local hubs that focus on niche interests and micro communities. We’re just now starting to get our minds around this and how to really make it work. Check in with me in another 6 months and maybe I’ll have a solution.
I realize this may sound a little nutty, so let’s take this out of theory and back down to earth. In my wife’s case, it’s clearly much more efficient to post a note on the moms’ Yahoo group in the morning asking for plumber recommendations, knowing that her mailbox will contain 3-5 trusted choices that night, than it is to spend a little more time fishing various Web sites, newspapers and directories for leads. We’ve had so much success with this “Mom Knowledge Network” that I now ask her to post questions on my behalf — for example, when I was looking for someone to build a deck, and again for someone to finish our basement. In both cases, we found very good, dependable contractors who were vetted from other moms. And those scrutinizing moms don’t lie!
Gannett didn’t stop with Indianapolis and Cincinnati. It’s now rolling out 39 moms sites across the country, potentially turning a few local niches into a national vertical with local hubs.
Just so nobody mistakes this post as a big ad for Gannett, there is a tangential tie-in to another company — The Sacramento Bee, owned by McClatchy — and The Bakersfield Californian. Not long ago the Bee came to us asking if they could use our Bakomatic software (the technology behind Bakotopia and our 9 social hubs in Bakersfield), and they secured the rights via our licensing arm, Participata LLC.
And what’s the first site they launched with it? You guessed it: a moms site! SacMomsClub.com launched late last week and is already experiencing good early growth. According to the Bee’s Rick Rodriguez, SacMomsClub is …
… a place where mothers can connect with one another online, share experiences and communicate on issues important to them and their families. The site includes calendars, forums, blogs, photo galleries, contests, links to helpful information and news stories.
And from development manager Blaine Wasylkiw:
Visitors to the site will play a pivotal role in creating, guiding and shaping the content and direction of the site, and it will continue to evolve to meet the needs and wants of our audience.
But that’s not where the niche story ends. Gannett’s own Arizona Republic earlier this year launched Amp.az, a youth-oriented social networking hub in Phoenix modeled after our Bakotopia.com. Also powered by the Bakomatic software, it’s evolving into Phoenix’s underground entertainment hub.
AZCentral.com also gives every user the right to a profile and blog using Bakomatic. And on top of that, they’ve created an Arizona Moms hub inside AZCentral that reskins profiles and blogs on AZCentral so that moms can connect with each other.
With all the focus lately on dismal financial numbers and print circulation trends, I think it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. While some see a world where newspapers cease to exist and sites like Slashdot serve as primary news sources, I’m seeing a very different trend.
Yes, many (but not all) people are ditching print and turning to all-digital news, sometimes from traditional news companies and sometimes not. At the same time, more and more niche web sites and print publications are
appearing and thriving. More time is being spent on one-to-one and many-to-many communication, versus the one-to-many model of traditional media.
But simultaneously, more and more traditional media companies — like Gannett, McClatchy, Morris Communications, Pioneer Newspapers and The Bakersfield Californian — are getting into the many-to-many game. And they’re doing this while still finding ways to make their flagship Web sites more dynamic and participatory in nature for the people who identify most with those brands. In a way, they’re “superserving” the people who love their newspaper brands and increasingly treating them like just another niche segment. While this may mean removing certain types of general-interest content and focusing more on content that their communities find most valuable, that’s OK. Niche products have taught us that it’s good to give each audience more of what they want most, because if don’t do that they just find it elsewhere.
So to the Prophets of Doom out there, I offer this. For those traditional companies that are open to changing with the rest of the world, it’s a new day that’s full of exciting possibilities, and we should feel fortunate that we’re part of a rising tide that will take journalism into its next incarnation. Whatever happens to the traditional model should have no bearing on that, as long as the companies that operate them see where things are going and continue to invest in community and participation.