A few Long Tail basics for newspapers

Every now and then I have one of those moments where I look at a newspaper or something someone’s written about them, and I remember – “Wait a minute, these guys are still trying to talk to everybody at once.”

It’s puzzling to me, and yet, it happens all the time.

So here are a few basics of the Long Tail, boiled down as tightly as I can work them in a few minutes over morning coffee:

  1. Some of your content appeals to many of your readers.
  2. Most of your content appeals to smaller groups of your readers.
  3. Some of your content appeals to few of your readers.

Often, the stories that fit into category 1 will also be covered by TV, radio, and any print competitors you have.

The stories that fit into category 2 are things you find in sections, like sports and business, and you can break those down further into these three groups if you’d like, to things like the NBA playoffs (category 1), high school basketball profiles (category 2), and a brief about the nets getting repaired at a local public park’s court (category 3).

The stories that fit into category 3 will be your most specific local content, stories that no other news organization has the time or space to report on, but the people who care about these stories will be your most passionate readers on the topic at hand. (See above basketball example.)

So if a story comes across your desk, and your instinct is that “not enough readers care about this,” ask yourself how passionately they care about it, and then serve that niche, and every niche you can, because your readers might read the story that affects everyone in town, but they’ll be far more interested in what goes on in their neighborhoods, or their professions, or their sports, or their hobbies, or their schools.

This is basic stuff.

Your readers aren’t a mass — stop treating them like one.

6 thoughts on “A few Long Tail basics for newspapers

  1. Ryan –

    I would add three overlapping categories to that – which are also useful for newspapers to pay attention to:

    1) News that is important right now – but will not be in 20 minutes (traffic, weather?)
    2) News that is important today – and will be of value tomorrow and in the near future. (The bulk of what we usually cover)
    3) News that may be of limited value to a broad audience today – but will be of increasing value to niche audiences over a long period of time. (Local databases and other long tail stuff)

  2. The catch is that no newspaper can afford to cover all of those Category 3 stories themselves. Instead, the key is to keep the costs of covering these stories very low, since they have little ROI. The best way to do that is to cover these only with user-submitted content.

  3. In response to Lucas:
    Since newspapers can’t cover all those Cat. 3 stories, they should be building sites that link people in those niche places together, so that the community does the heavy lifting for them.

    Why skimp on telling good, in-depth stories? If papers would tie ads to the communities they build and then reinvest that money into reporting, the amount of news a paper could cover would make the NYTimes Sunday Edition look meager at best.

    In response to Damon:
    I think the first two Cats you mention are in for a good rocking in the coming years.

    First, the news that’s immediately important can still be covered more effectively by broadcast. After all, when breaking news happens, no one runs to pick up a paper. They flip on the TV or radio and see and hear it AS IT HAPPENS.

    However, if you’re talking about marrying print and broadcast online… well, now we’re talking!

    Second, news that’s important today (ie. stocks, traffic, etc.) can be dolled out to third party services that get the information cheaper. There’s no need to waste valuable resources and talented reporters on work that can be outsourced.

    Let journalists do what they do best. Dig. Do analysis, get interviews, tell the big stories that are REALLY important to THEIR LOCAL communities.

    Ryan is right. Papers need to reach out to the people that have a vested interest in the stories, because they are more likely to be passionate.

    And in the news biz, passion equals money – and that’s never a bad thing.

  4. Andrew –

    Actually I am not thinking about marrying print and broadcast. I am thinking specifically about the Internet.

    In many markets newspapers can and should own the breaking news franchise. We use email, SMS (including Twitter), and RSS to keep readers informed of breaking news. On many days it is our most popular Web content.

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