Journalism has traditionally faced the same constraints of most institutions of the industrial society. On the one hand, the scarcity of resources: remote or hidden sources of information, a limited radio wave spectrum, lack of paper and the associated costs to buy it, etc. On the other hand, the transaction costs of putting the whole thing together: expensive (tele)communication infrastructures, reaching an audience, reaching advertisers, coordinating staff, etc. These are arguably the most powerful reasons why media are mass media, and why we quite often cannot think about journalism without translating it into mass media – even if the concepts are as different as the seventh art and the entertainment industry. Thus, mass media address a general audience with general information (we are simplifying here, of course). In other words, mass media does scale up: in a bricks-and-mortar-and-paper world, it is more efficient and effective to address a massive audience than targeting each and every individual according to their tastes. On the contrary, other scenarios are just not sustainable. Let’s take, for instance, the example of critical analysis of local political news. Such exercise requires, on the one hand, a deep knowledge of journalism and, on the other hand, a deep knowledge of political science, sociology, economics, etc. to which we have to add the narrow context of a municipality. But as the scenario is a municipality, it is unlikely that such a narrow audience will be able to sustain such an investment in quality knowledge: specialized (and expensive) journalists vs. a short number of advertisers and a reduced number of newspaper readers/buyers. The trade-off is, of course, a lack of breadth and depth of news and information in general. That is, it is just normal that, if media aim at having a massive audience, they simply address the very average of the distribution of population — just like most political parties do too — both in terms of topics addressed (breadth) and the intensiveness with which they are addressed (depth). As a result, it is not surprising to witness the huge concentration of media producing information — but not data journalism or critical analysis — about quite general topics — but with poor specialization or opening up the lens to provide comparisons between topics or a broader context.
Micro / specialized / local
Meso / General
Macro / Multidisciplinary
Table 1: saturated niches of journalism But the digitization of information and communications may open up what once was closed in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. Now, the costs of producing information are lowered dramatically. Actually, what is now much lower is not the costs of producing information but the costs of publishing or broadcasting it, which is quite different. The most immediate thing that comes to mind is the reduction of the cost of paper. But there is much much more than that: the Internet knows not about radiowave (physical) constraints and, thus, knows not about a short supply of wave spectrum that pushes prices up; the Internet neither knows about the costs of accessing quality multimedia content from whatever place in the world (one’s own city suburbs included, by the way); the Internet knows not of most costs related to delivery; etc. If costs are cut down, so can revenues. And if revenues are reduced, so can audiences. And then specialization can happen. What new spaces are disclosed by online journalism?
Micro / specialized / local CharacterizationPattern recognition Policy
Meso / General
Macro / Multidisciplinary CorrelationCausality Macro-level comparisonsMacro-level trendsComplexityParadigm shifts
Table 2: new niches of online journalism vs. saturated niches. Firstly, we can now dig into the micro-level, by being specialized in a topic or discipline or, if we are speaking in geographical terms, we can go back to the local level and provide quality data at this level. Secondly, we can broaden the scope of data out to the macro-level, providing a multidisciplinary approach that can bring into the equation analysis of correlation and causality between different variables and/or levels. At the geographical level this means shifting to a world wide vision and thus providing context. Symmetrically, we can gain depth in the quality of information and turn it into knowledge that can be directly applied as policy advice and the very micro or local levels. These are just scattered reflections upon which I have been rambling the past years. But it seems to me — and it is just a personal impression — that some of these things are beginning to take real form. We will see, in the near future, whether they become mainstream or just end up to the place where unsuccessful experiments of trial-and-error go. This post originally published at ICT4D Blog as New niches for online journalism