If this succeeds, what’s to stop, say, the Detroit Free Press from augmenting its definition of Detroit as a municipality with Detroit as an idea—say, all things automotive? There is news in cars, lots of it. And there are people who need to know it, not all of them residents of greater Detroit. One wonders what the denuded San Jose Mercury News, a paper that had been a model of the regional news organization, might have become had it positioned itself as the definitive source of tech news for a readership well beyond Silicon Valley.
Once a news organization sees itself as something more than in service of a place, it puts itself in a position to tap into one of the emotional imperatives that sustain the niche sites. Geoff Ketchum’s Orangebloods, for instance, is not limited to resident Texans. Regardless of where they live, his core readers have proven themselves willing to pay for the knowledge his site offers so that they can remain a part of a conversation. “Newspapers can’t entice us into small payment systems,” argues the media thinker Clay Shirky, “because we care too much about our conversation with one another . . . .” Newspapers, as presently defined, cannot. But if Orangebloods can, why can’t a vertical on what is otherwise a general news site?
Those conversations can be inclusive (pay $9.95 a month and become an Orangeblood) or exclusive (CQ BillTrack), but what they have in common is that each, in a sense, represents what might best be called a Community of Need. The need is for the news that fuels a particular conversation. So long as there is something new to report.
Niche sites succeed, in large measure, by staking out a line of coverage that represents precisely the kinds of stories that newspapers decided to abandon years ago because so many readers found them so tedious: process stories. The relentless journey of a bill through a legislative body—cloture vote! Tracking a running back as he decides between Baylor and Texas. But process stories are stories that, by their nature, offer an endless source of developments; there is always something new happening, even if to those on the outside of the conversation, it is news of little value. Robert Merry wonders, for instance, why so many newspapers abandoned their statehouse bureaus when those capital cities were awash in money, lobbyists, legislators, and eager-beaver aides who’d be willing to pay quite a lot for information that might give them an edge. They did so because most readers said the stories were boring—and that was true for most readers, but not all.
But there is an important caveat: such projects do not succeed if they’re done on the cheap. They require reporters whose primary responsibility is to supply the endless news that feeds those relatively few readers’ needs. The need is for news. Not opinion. (Bobby Burton is not alone in believing the Times erred in what it chose to place behind its TimesSelect paywall, which was not news but the opinions of its famous columnists.) The problem with opinion is that the Web has made everyone a columnist precisely because it costs nothing to offer a point of view. Nor does it cost very much, or sometimes nothing at all, to fill a site with well-intentioned work, and opinion, provided by citizen journalists. But as Burton discovered in the early days of Rivals, those amateur journalists may have wise and clever things to say, but when he wanted to regularly break news he went out and hired people who knew how to do it—and he pays them between $30,000 and more than $150,000 a year.
Orangebloods is only as good as its next scoop; because if its stories begin appearing with any frequency someplace else—and perhaps, for free—the compact that Ketchum has with his readers is in jeopardy. Which is why there is nothing passive or reactive about the site’s approach to its work. That, however, has not always been the case for general news that has traditionally defined itself by default: it’s news because it’s always been news. This, in turn, has created a culture of news in which the operative verb, far too often, is said, a culture in which all a reporter needs to do is listen and record.
As a result, too much of what fills the news pages is, as is often said, stenography. And because it can be done quickly, and at great volume, and with relatively little effort, it endures. The timing could not be more dispiriting, given that the generation in power in journalism now came to the field with a sense of journalism’s possibilities, and broadened the idea of what news could be. But this generation also came of age at a time of growing newsroom prosperity.