Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The importance of finding a niche

DO niche publications - the ones with titles such as Payroll and Human Resources, Process Engineering, Air Cargo News and Parliamentary Monitor - hold the key to the future? The growth and success of business-to-business magazines, newsletters, online bulletins and databases, alongside more widely read niche publications such as the Economist and Financial Times, is among the most striking features of the media landscape over the past 20 years. Though many are struggling in the recession, they are expected to weather it better than most mainstream media. People will still pay for authoritative specialist information and advertisers will also pay to reach those who are reading it.
But a fascinating new report from the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC, suggests that the rise of such publications has unwelcome implications. Most of their subscribers are members of professional elites. And in the US, at least, they are gradually taking over the coverage of politics. Press coverage is being remoulded to serve an elite that will pay a premium price to keep tabs on how politicians and civil servants are affecting elite interests. News of how democratic institutions work is being segmented and privatised. And this process began 20 years ago, long before the recession and even before the growth of the internet.
Pew identifies newsletters, trade publications and specialist magazines, many of them online only, with such titles as ClimateWire, Energy Trader, Traffic World, and Food Chemical News, and finds that the number with Washington reporting teams has risen by roughly a third since 1985 and by a fifth in the past four years. For instance, ClimateWire, which covers the growing policy debate on climate change and charges $3,495 for an annual subscription, has more than twice as many reporters on Capitol Hill as Hearst, which runs 16 dailies. The biggest and best-known niche media organisation is Bloomberg News, with 275,000 clients worldwide and nearly as many Washington reporters as Associated Press and, in London, three reporters accredited as parliamentary lobby correspondents.
As Pew points out, mainstream media journalists once looked down on such publications as "boring and peripheral" and their reporters aspired to jobs on "proper" newspapers and magazines. Now, many journalists see niche publications as havens of relative security.
Not all such publications serve corporate customers. Mother Jones, a lefty, non-profit magazine from San Francisco that promises "hell-raising", has seven reporters in Washington - only one fewer than Time magazine - where a decade ago it had none. But the general media trend is clear. About half the news generated in Washington - concerning federal agencies and government departments, as well as Congress - is no longer aimed at the mass of voters, but at narrow lobbying interests, many of them the sources of politicians' campaign funds. As one journalist said to Pew, lobbyists will know more about what the senator for Alabama is up to - and be in a better position to influence his vote - than the people of Alabama. If this is the future, western politics will, in effect, return to the early 19th century, before the advent of mass circulation papers, mass literacy and the extension of the franchise.
What does this mean for the British press? Our media, politics and, crucially, geography are quite different from America's and it is not possible to identify a precisely parallel shift in coverage of Westminster and Whitehall. But the withdrawal of much of the mainstream press from detailed and serious coverage of public policy - as opposed to Westminster drama and scandal - is widely commented upon. This applies particularly to the immensely important European institutions that now account for nearly a third of all the legislation and regulation that affect Britain. To get any sense of what is emerging from Brussels, one has to find specialist publications on, for example, accounting, energy, engineering and the food industry. The FT is rightly admired for its comprehensive and authoritative reporting of public policy. But its paid-for circulation in the UK is less than 100,000. It will never be read beyond a small elite. Commentators frequently lament how British politicians are swayed by the Mail and Sun. It would be far worse if our rulers cared only what the FT said or if the FT and publications like it were alone in paying attention to how we are governed.
The future for mainstream newspapers may lie in finding niche markets that they can themselves exploit. There is no obvious reason why reporting teams dedicated to producing material for elite specialist audiences on, say, banking, climate change, energy policy, or food shouldn't also provide coverage of such issues for a more general readership. As Pew's Tom Rosenstiel puts it, niche publications tend to cover trees, not forests, and therefore don't provide the big exposés. But there is nothing to stop imaginative publishers and editors from bringing the trees together.

A Liddle bit of respect, please
Rod Liddle, the Sunday Times columnist, is entitled to his opinions on New Labour ministers. I wouldn't claim to be a fan myself, and I am all in favour of well-directed political abuse. But can somebody explain to me what is supposed to be funny about the regular personal insults Liddle throws at Labour women? Last November, he described Dawn Primarolo as "a shovel-faced termagant". More recently, he stated that "Harriet Harman will never become party leader, because she has a face like an empty pie-case in which the pastry has not been sufficiently pricked." (There's more of that one, but I won't bother you with it.) In the same column, under a picture of a Chinese man carrying a giant rat, Liddle observed it (the rat) was "the size and shape of Tessa Jowell" and explained that, though they do eat such creatures, the Chinese "prefer them smaller - the size and shape of Hazel Blears at most".
All these comments seem gratuitous and childish to me. No doubt Liddle will dismiss my concerns as those of an ageing, politically correct lickspittle, trying to ingratiate myself with Guardian wimmin. Either he needs psychiatric help or I do.

Cope or dope?
The Daily Telegraph ran yet another series last week about the plight of "the coping classes", which it invented last year. These comprise well-heeled middle-class folk who have been hit by rising food and fuel bills (unlike the rest of us, of course). Now, we learn, they are no longer coping. "We've sacked our cleaners, we're exercising our own pets," writes Judith Woods. "We" are naturally wondering how "we" can keep up the school fees and afford a nanny. It has all come as a rude surprise: "we" didn't think house prices could ever fall. Sounds more like the stupid classes to me.

Source: Guardian.co.uk

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