In his post on the Harvard Business site, Umair Haque lays out better than I ever have the characteristics of the genre which The Texas Tribune aspires to inhabit. Particularly, the idea of “knowledge, not news” is one that I’ve appropriated wholesale for our discussions with partners and investors. The twin ideas of placing news in context and building on a topic–rather than a story–as the basic units of news are among the things that got me most excited about starting TT. Matt Thompson first introduced me to these concepts more than a year ago at newsless.org. A helpful interview with Matt is here. Hopefully, we’ll be hosting Matt in Austin in September for a jam session about news in context.
Here are Haque’s characteristics of a nichepaper, some of which I buy into more than others:
Knowledge, not news. Newspapers strive to give people the news. Next stop, commodity central. Nichepapers strive to impart meaningful, lasting knowledge instead.
Commentage, not commentary. Newspapers dictate to their reader what news and opinion are. Nichepapers co-create knowledge through “commentage.” Commentage is the kid sister of reportage: it is the art of curating comments to have a dialogue with the audience — because the audience can fill gaps, plug holes, and thicken the foundations of knowledge. Many newspapers have comments — so what? Almost none are having a dialogue with commenters — who are mostly stuck in a twilight zone where they can only talk to one another. Nichepapers, in contrast, are always having deep dialogues with readers.
Topics, not articles. That’s why Nichepapers develop topics — instead of telling quickly-forgotten stories. When Talking Points Memo exposed the Bush administration’s series of politically motivated firings, it did so in a series of posts, that let the story develop, surface, thicken, and climax. Stories are for information — topics are for knowledge.
Scarcity, not circulation. Newspapers strive for circulation, by telling the same stories in the same ways — in slightly different places. Nichepapers strive for scarcity: to develop a perspective, analytical skills, and storytelling capabilities that are inimitable by rivals.
Now, not then. Newspapers give you the news then. Nichepapers give you knowledge now. Why have weekly columns and daily articles — that then get lost in the wilderness of a vast archive? It’s an arcane, obsolete way to produce content. Nichepapers develop topics of conversation, not individual stories, and let them co-evolve with readers.
Provocation, not perfection. Newspapers seek perfection: perfect grammar, perfect ledes, perfect headlines. Nichepapers seek provocation instead. Sometimes, yes, that provocation is mere titillation. But more often than not it’s authentic provcation: nichepapers provoke us to think; they challenge us; they educate us in ways that newspapers stopped doing long ago.
Snowballs, not sell-outs. Newspapers long ago sold out to advertisers, PR flaks, powerful “sources,” and lobbyists. When was the last time the WSJ bit the hand that fed it? Why is the Post’s editorial page so predictably tepid? Nichepapers haven’t sold out — and if their economic promise delivers, they won’t have to. They “sell in” instead: they pitch topics and stories to the community, and let the best ones snowball — through contributions like tips, criticisms, and corrections.
Tasks, not tech. Nichepapers aren’t about technology. They might use a blog post, vlog post, podcast, wiki, series of tweets, or a long-form article — or all of these, all at once. They are tech-neutral, using whatever works best for a given task.