The beat generation is behind us, according to Gideon Lichfield, Global News Editor at Atlantic Media’s soon-to-launch digital business brand Quartz.
Writing on his blog, News Thing, Lichfield deconstructs the notion of “beat” journalism, along with its assumption that news falls naturally into tidy thematic pigeonholes such as “education” or “real estate.” It doesn’t, he argues; newspapers carved it up that way to lend structure to their product, to efficiently divide the labour of their reporters and editors, and to ensure that they appealed to a comprehensive swath of readers and advertisers, as per the old business model.
Online, he asserts, such an approach does not make sense. In a realm where “readers can browse hundreds of news sites at no extra cost,” for each publication to attempt to cover a “comprehensive” range of interest areas, and stuff them into thematic boxes would be inefficient and illogical. Free of the constraints of pages and sections, why not frame the world in a more organic way?
Hence Quartz’s decision to eschew familiar classifications such as “financial markets” and “energy” in its navigation bar, and to instead structure its content based on an ever-shifting assortment of “phenomena” or “obsessions,” from climate change to Chinese investment in Africa. Treating such complex issues requires the ability to transcend the bounds of traditional categories like “politics," “economics” and “technology,” he writes, arguing that this is a more “human” way of structuring journalism, compared with the “institutional” phenomenology of beats.
Does this new phenomenology mean that the future crop of journalists will need to cultivate an intuitive understanding of everything from the Higgs boson to Yves Saint Laurent's tailoring? No. Power to those who do, of course— there is no need for a science reporter’s wardrobe to contain only Dharma initiative jumpsuits, and a fashion blogger has everything to gain from staying abreast of the goings-on at CERN. However, the diminuendo of the beat as we know it in online journalism does not signal the end of thematic specialization. Rather, it is a logical extension of the theory of the Long Tail.
Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of Wired and author of the theory, describes the Long Tail as follows: “Our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of ‘hits’ (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers in one-size-fits-all containers.”
In the land of the Long Tail, there is no reason to fragment the world into manageable “beats;” already, residents of each niche view the world through a particular thematic or regional lens, be it technology (Wired), U.S. Politics (Politico), Canada (The Walrus) or business (the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and now Quartz).
This is good for journalists who prefer to sink their teeth into the areas that interest them most, whilst maintaining a 360-degree perspective. It is good for readers for whom more content is being created on more subjects, and from more angles, than ever before. Finally, it has the potential to be good for balance sheets, because advertisers will pay more to put ads, advertorials, or sponsored content before the eyes of people who they know are interested in what they have to offer. Quartz, which counts Boeing, Credit Suisse, Chevron and Cadillac as launch sponsors, and which will allow advertisers to create content through the “Quarts Bulletin,” appears to have figured this out.
In this week’s Monday Note, Frédéric Filloux paints a dystopian picture of a world in which news publishers aren’t able to extract more money per user than they do now, and most of them die off: “The bulk of the population – with the notable exception of the educated wealthy – will rely on high audience web sites merely acting as echo chambers for shallow commodity news snippets,” he warns.
The antidote, Filloux argues, lies in the potential for publishers to use Big Data to glean nuanced intelligence about their readers. Armed with such an informational advantage, a news organization can win readers’ loyalty (and maybe even paid subscriptions) by feeding them stories that suit them to a tee (without sacrificing serendipity), all the while increasing revenue from lucrative ads tailored to a niche audience.
Whether or not you believe that this brave new world is the way forward, there is reason to expect that the general will continue to give way to the specific. Except for a handful of heritage brands, aggregators and portals, successful providers of digital news will not cast a sweeping eye over everything under the sun; they will drill deep into topical pockets. Never again will the world's 27 year-old newlywed ballerinas who eat only peanut butter sandwiches and have a passion for nanotechnology do without the content they crave.