The Onion and Nichey News Models of the Future

Greg Beato’s homage to The Onion in the November issue of Reason Magazine is finally linkable.

At a time when traditional newspapers are frantic to divest themselves of their newsy, papery legacies, The Onion takes a surprisingly conservative approach to innovation. As much as it has used and benefited from the Web, it owes much of its success to low-tech attributes readily available to any paper but nonetheless in short supply: candor, irreverence, and a willingness to offend.

While other newspapers desperately add gardening sections, ask readers to share their favorite bratwurst recipes, or throw their staffers to ravenous packs of bloggers for online question-and-answer sessions, The Onion has focused on reporting the news. The fake news, sure, but still the news. It doesn’t ask readers to post their comments at the end of stories, allow them to rate stories on a scale of one to five, or encourage citizen-satire. It makes no effort to convince readers that it really does understand their needs and exists only to serve them. The Onion’s journalists concentrate on writing stories and then getting them out there in a variety of formats, and this relatively old-fashioned approach to newspapering has been tremendously successful.

Are there any other newspapers that can boast a 60 percent increase in their print circulation during the last three years?…Too many high priests of journalism still see humor as the enemy of seriousness: If the news goes down too easily, it can’t be very good for you. But do The Onion and its more fact-based acolytes, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, monitor current events and the way the news media report on them any less rigorously than, say, the Columbia Journalism Review or USA Today?…Despite its “fake news” purview, it’s an extremely honest publication. Most dailies, especially those in monopoly or near-monopoly markets, operate as if they’re focused more on not offending readers (or advertisers) than on expressing a worldview of any kind….Until today’s front pages can amuse our staunchest defenders of journalistic integrity to severe dyspepsia, if not death, they’re not trying hard enough.

Also today (via Romenesko) The Naperville News reports on “Our Dumb College Speaking Tour: The News Business and How it’s Done – An Evening with Two of the Most Important Writers in Journalism History,” featuring The Onion’s Todd Hanson and Chris Karwowski. Says Hanson: “The Onion is about one thing, and that is having the courage to tell the truth in ways that other newspapers are afraid to print….None of this stuff is actually real. We make all of this stuff up. It’s all made up. But you’d be amazed by how many people don’t figure that out.”

Meanwhile, some sketches on what news might look like in the future from Rob Paterson and the World Association of Newspapers. First, Rob:

  • The new will be “nichey” – headlines and regular news are commodities – the more “nichey” the more likely to meet the needs of a community – the more a community is served – the more likely that the community will have a value – the more likely some kind of economic model can be arrived at
  • The “reader” will pick from the many niches the areas that they want not the “editor” – no reader will go in the front door – they will want it “their way” – for instance I could not care less about sports BUT many would kill to find a real insider – if the writer was some one like Michael Lewis even I would read it – I want to build my newspaper
  • Make it easy for me to find and read/view/listen to great material – make it easy!!!!!! I will pay for my time – I want great stuff about things that I find important – I want a person’s opinion about it all too
  • Key being personality – I don’t read the Times – I like certain writers – they stimulate me – I don’t want an institution – I want to relate to people – then I want to have my say
  • Comments can be awful – most are crass – many are crap – but what if a hosted community was added – look at Leroy at NPR and at how his community acts – now imagine if this was expanded so that cancer sufferers and their caregivers could speak in some kind of privacy with each other?

From the WAN report:

“The printed newspaper will get smaller and become mostly free. New technology and combination probably with mobile phones will make even the printed newspaper much more interactive than today. Low voltage e-paper or other paper-replacing foldable screens will be available to offer an alternative to the paper version, but very little interactive or cost efficient in regards to information retrieval.” Moritz Wuttke, CEO, APAC Publicitas, China


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