Niche markets: the saviour of journalism?

John Van Dusen

John Van DusenThe second-year MJ students have been given an ultimatum: Find a new business model for future media or else you won’t graduate.

Seasoned veteran of the Globe and Mail Stephen Strauss gave a lecture going over that very dilemma facing the soon-to-be graduates recently at Ryerson University titled, “Can Students Reincarnate Journalism? — Or Should They Let You Graduate If You Haven’t Come Up with a Business Model For Future Media?”  

Strauss calls himself Og the Caveman.

“My career path doesn’t exist anymore. I never went to journalism school.” Early on he knew he liked writing and eventually landed a job with a supermarket tabloid in Montreal. From there it was one rung at a time up the proverbial career ladder. He went from translating tabloids to writing for the Montreal Star before a move to Toronto landed him a job at the Globe.

“I wandered into the Globe and Mail with some clippings,” said Strauss. The next day he was offered the job in which he spent more than 20 years. But he warned the students his road to success is from a different place in the days of way back when.

“I say to you now I don’t know if this career path will exist for you because things have changed,” he said. Advertising, circulation and distribution are down. And it’s not just newspapers feeling the squeeze. Magazines, radio, and television networks are cutting back. Throw in a recession and you have the makings of a perfect storm for the death of traditional media.

The problem, according to Strauss, is the business model does not work the way it used too.  

“In the past if you want to rent out an apartment you would go to a newspaper and take out a daily ad,” he said. “Maybe 50 people are going to be in the market for an apartment; however, I will have to advertise to everybody. So what has arisen has been a different kind of advertising. What we’re now looking at what Craigslist and Ebay and Expedia has done. You can bypass newspapers, magazines, radio, and have a discussion in which the buyer and seller talk with one another.”

Newspaper revenue relies about 75 per cent on advertising. And with more money going into online advertising, especially classified ads, which count for about 35 per cent of newspaper advertising, what we are seeing says Strauss, is two trends passing one another.

Second-year MJ student John McGrath agrees.

“I was always convinced that everything was going to have to go online. We have to find more creative ways to go online. Getting advertisers to support you is the big question.”

McGrath is a student in Jeffrey Dvorkin’s second-year MJ class. The class has been given the challenge to come up with a business model to cover breaking news. It’s called the Mumbai Project, after the November terrorist attacks in India.

“We’re trying to come up with the best possible way to report on breaking news using that [Mumbai bombings] as a model. We need to break it down and come up with our own business model,” said second-year MJ student Sarah Bridge. The finished product will be a website dedicated to breaking news.

The class will break down the bare essentials it needs to run a website. What once took 25 people can be done by far fewer. Technology has changed the way things are done in a newsroom. But the problem is the business model surrounding the Internet is too focused on free content for users.

“If the presumption is you will work for free – going from one internship to another-  you don’t have a career in journalism but an experience in journalism,” said Strauss. “This is the problem because this is what new media sites presume, free content.”

The question is how do you take what makes the internet most attractive – free content – and turn a profit? Strauss’ answer is in niche markets.

In the Internet world everyone is famous to 15 people. If you can get those 15 to pay for original content, you may find yourself a winner. But that leads to another problem. If anyone can write a blog, where does that leave journalists? As Dvorkin put it, what you have is too much product chasing not enough eyeballs. And with so much content, advertisers have a plethora of potential customers. The problem once again comes down to free content.

“I can’t tell what’s dying, but we know what’s being born,” he added.
“I have complete faith in five years time the Internet will be still
here and will be expanding and vibrant. I have no idea about daily
newspapers or general interest magazines. I see what’s happening to
their business models and I see what’s happening to their competition.
I’m not sure if I (or) you can save them.”

“I don’t think you have other options. I don’t think you can say I will graduate and get a job in an organization and they’ll take care of me,” said Strauss. “The organizations are in panic mode. Their quite nervous because they don’t understand their future but they know their business model is cracked.”

John Van Dusen is a fourth-year broadcast journalism student at Ryerson University. He spent a semester on at the Danish School of Journalism in Aarhus, Denmark in 2008.