Journalists should understand “Long Tails”

In the early 1980s – well before he became editor-in-chief of Wired magazine – Chris Anderson played bass for REM.

At the time, another unknown band was laying claim to the same name. The dispute, they agreed, would be settled by a battle of the bands in a Washington DC nightclub. The winner would rename the loser.

The other REM opened with its debut single, “Radio Free Europe,” and that was that. Michael Stipe’s band renamed their rivals Egoslavia and went on to play stadiums. Anderson, who had dropped out of university, eventually went back to study physics.

Anderson recounted the anecdote recently on the blog on which he expanded “The Long Tail” from an acclaimed 2004 Wired feature about the changing economics of cultural products in the digital era, into a book of the same title.

“I quickly discovered that the blog became a great way to do what in other industries is completely normal — which is to beta-test this idea, to peer-review it, get some feedback from the marketplace about whether you’re going in the right direction,” said Anderson.

He floated ideas and posted drafts to the blog, and his readers caught errors, suggested improved phrasing, and sent examples from industries he had never considered.

“I would never write a book again that wasn’t basically done as open-source research project on a blog, in collaboration with my readers,” he says.

The “long tail” refers to the shape of the demand distribution that exists for many commodities — including news.

For a range of products, ranked by demand, the curve begins on the left side of a horizontal axis with a “short head” — a small number of bestselling blockbusters — and then drops rapidly into a “long tail” of countless products that achieve only a few sales each, but together account for a substantial number.

Bricks-and-mortar businesses try to predict this demand by picking the bestsellers that will maximise sales from their scarce shelf-space. Similarly, print editors have guessed at which stories placed on their limited pages will sell the most magazines. In these circumstances, the short head dominates. Online, though, an ever-expanding range of products from the long tail can thrive.

With inevitable irony, the book about the power of niche products has itself become a bestseller.

Journalism faces disruption from two such long tails, Anderson says: a long tail of subject matter and a long tail in time.

According to Dave Sifry of blog search engine Technorati, there are now around 50 million blogs — a figure that has nearly doubled from 27 million in February. Whether blogs are journalism is a moot point to Anderson: Collectively, they are competing with mainstream news outlets for readers’ attention — and increasingly, advertising revenue.

Journalism’s second long tail can be seen in the access logs of news sites with open online archives. Recently published research showed that half of the traffic to an online news item occurs in the first 36 hours after it has been published. Individually, each archived story is accessed rarely after 36 hours — but collectively, they add up to a significant readership. Long-term relevance and authoritativeness are challenging timeliness as the dominant news value, Anderson argues.

“Twenty-four hours and then it’s fishwrap — that’s is the newspaper rule,” says Anderson.

“When you consider that the newspaper presumption is a 12-hour half-life after which you’re down to zero, and the reality is now that it’s a 36-hour half-life with second half going off into perpetuity, that’s a very big shift towards long tail in time.”

Today, a band like Egoslavia might develop a long-tail fanbase on MySpace and hope to attract an established label to propel it to the short head stratosphere like its erstwhile namesakes REM. But that wasn’t an option in 1982.

Instead of pursuing a career as academic physicist, though, Anderson followed his parents into journalism — initially with the science journals Nature and Science.

As a physicist, Anderson had used the internet to log into the Cray supercomputers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, but it never occurred to him that anyone other than scientists would use the network — until, that is, he first read Wired in 1993. The then-new magazine looked at computers and network technologies from a social perspective.

“It was a very kind of radical message about how this technology that I thought was for geeks alone was actually contributing to the world,” he recalls.

This approach would become his specialism at The Economist, where he spent seven years, first as a technology writer and setting up the magazine’s website in London, later as a business editor in Hong Kong and New York.

It was “with great regret” Anderson says, that he left the title to accept the sudden offer from Cond√© Nast to edit Wired, the magazine which had done so much to influence his career.

Anderson now describes himself as “the king of the geeks” in a stable that includes Vogue and Vanity Fair. He talked to Press Gazette about the implications of long-tail economics for journalism.

“The web doesn’t discriminate between new and old.”

Online, everything is equally available and relevance is not determined by where something is on a page but by what other people think of it. When you look at it from that perspective, you see that stuff that is deemed ‘good’ builds its incoming links over time — that is, the longer it is out there, the more people link to it and the more people discover it.

Google and other search engines measure relevance on the basis of incoming links which will rank it higher and higher, and as a result it will appear higher and higher in search results and therefore get even more traffic. In a weird way, it completely inverts the calculus of news, which is that the new stuff is what matters and the old stuff doesn’t matter — because the good old stuff gets more relevant over time as more people flag it and link to it.

I think it was a surprise to many people that search would be such a powerful driver of demand for news, especially when you consider that canonical search — the regular search rather than news search — doesn’t even find stuff until a week or so after the fact because the spiders just take that long to find things. What you’re realising is that people care much more about what’s relevant than what’s new.

“The day that you could, as a media organisation, expect people to come to your home page, to navigate to news within your site, make you a part of their daily routine — that day is going.”

Increasingly people are going to be getting their news from a broad menu of many sites. You can’t expect them to come necessarily to your home page. They will be coming, instead, to individual stories that they find out about in any number of ways — possibly from a blog, possibly from another site, or from Google.

Increasingly traffic will be coming in at the story level rather than at the home-page level. Therefore it’s incumbent upon publishers to have permalinks, to have those stories available to all so that people will be encouraged to link to them and drive that traffic.

“Our strategy is to be both very big and very small. “

We’re very big — we’re Cond√© Nast and our print publication benefits from Cond√© Nast economics.

But we also believe that we have to compete in the world of the very small, which means that we have to have blogs and communities and voting and trackbacks and be very much part of the conversation of that niche level.

That means enabling the community aspects on the stuff that we already do — opening comments and trackbacks and the Digg stuff and all that — and also partly expanding what we do to many blogs, more niche sites, the kind of things that we already do well online, but don’t work in a very one-size-fitsall monthly print magazine.

“I believe that more traffic is good and that’s why we put virtually all of our content out there for free”

The challenge for us is to convert that web traffic into subscriber, to make the business work on our site rather than forcing people to subscribe to get access to the content in the first place.

There are some who take a different approach.

There are some who require you to log in; there are some that require you to pay for content. Our sense is that if you do that, you will get some revenues, but you will not be part of the conversation. You will not have access to that extraordinary word-of-mouth effect out there in the wide-open world.

“Obviously, the core of the business is the print business.”

We think that a glossy print monthly magazine can do something the web can’t do. We have long-form journalism — 8,000-word stories. We have elaborate photography and high-end design, all of which really doesn’t shine into its best online — the stories are just too long, and the design and the photography is largely lost online.

Although we make all of those stories available online, our job is to make the people who come read those stories online see that there is an even better experience of reading them in their immersive form in the print magazine and converting them to subscribers and some fraction will convert, and some won’t.

So that’s the core of the business. But the blog aspects and the niche media aspects are clearly the expansion part of the business, and those things run on a very different type of economics.

“No single blog that we start is going to generate significant revenues in terms of advertising.”

These things are going to operate on blog economics, which are driven largely by labours of love rather than commerce. And that’s cool because we all have passions that we want to share and we now have a very low-cost platform on which to do it with, but it isn’t going to pay the rent here — that’s what the print magazine does.

“A lot of journalists have an arrogance about our profession that just does not reflect the reality of what people are reading right now.”

The arrogance comes out of the notion that — this is what I call the derivative myth —blogs simply talk about what we let them, that they are simply lowvalue added chatter about what we initially create, and that this is a very subservient position.

The reality is, of course, that some bloggers chat about what we write, but most bloggers don’t. Most bloggers write about what they are interested in: their friends, their life, and the world around them.

They’re interested in their kids’ football league, or their schools or their neighbourhoods, or their particular niche interests. And there is a whole world of niche interests out there that we in the mainstream media just can’t get to. Our model doesn’t scale down to their world.

We see the world through the subjects that journalists do have a preferential ability to cover — like politics, world affairs, war, things like that.

Those are things that journalists are great at because they have the resources, skills and access. But there’s another world out there of things that we might do well, but there are just too many things out there for us to cover them in any way that makes money — and that’s what the bloggers are doing very well.

“Most people have a combination of mainstream interests and niche interests.”

Mainstream interests are often served well by mainstream media, but niche interests are usually not served at all by mainstream media. And that’s a case where the blogosphere is basically filling that gap, and that’s why I prefer it for those subjects.

My interests tend to be very narrow — too narrow to show up in the pages of a newspaper or a mainstream magazine. For example, I’m into Lego robotics and Microsoft Media Centre API design. Or some very narrow economic areas regarding complexity and power-law theory. And gadgets — but very, very narrow, fringe gadgets, like what’s new in Korea. It’s not that the mainstream media is doing a bad job with those things — mainstream media isn’t doing it at all.

Now, there are other subjects, like the Iraq war, where I very much look for the mainstream media.

That just doesn’t happen to be one of my passions.

My passions tend to be narrow.

“Is blogging journalism? Who knows what journalism is any more?”

If a blogger writes about something they know about — and they’re accurate and responsible, is that journalism? Is it reportage? Is it just commentary? I mean, who knows. What it is — is useful. And increasingly people are finding new information and perspectives in the blogosphere that they weren’t finding in the mainstream media. That’s not derivative. That doesn’t require us to start that conversation — that conversation started on its own.

Those who see the blogosphere simply through the lense of the political discourse, which does tend to be driven by the mainstream media — are missing the whole other conversation out there that is not being driven by us, and I think they miss it at their peril.

“Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter what journalists think — this is happening anyway.”

Blogs have an extraordinarily wide spectrum of styles and technique and it’s not like our world, and yet it’s competing with our world for readership.

There are hundreds of millions of people out their reading blogs and not asking themselves ‘is this journalism or not’ — they’re just saying ‘does it appeal to my interests?’

That is a trend that is going to only increase and those of us who fight it will find ourselves passed by.

Those of us who try to understand it and figure out what is our place in a world of 27 million blogs are going to be the ones who really do figure what journalism’s next era is going to be about.

“My role as an editor is very much the old model of the tastemaker, the gatekeeper, of being a very powerful filter.”

I decide what gets into the pages of Wired. We try our best to predict what people want, to elevate ideas in a way that have power and get people talking. Ten years ago we would compete with other magazines that were trying to do the same thing. Now we compete with other magazines and newspapers — and 27 million bloggers who do something that isn’t what we do but competes with what we do for readership.

So part of what I do has become harder. I’ve got more competition and there are lots more tastemakers out there. I’m not a gatekeeper anymore because there’s always another way to get out that doesn’t go through my pages. I need to not only compete for readers, but also compete for writers, who have the capacity to publish straight to the web without dealing with our demands. That’s wonderful competition. In the competition for readership I need to do all the things that bloggers can’t — and that goes back to my point about long-form journalism and photography and package ideas that doesn’t work one screen at a time on the web.

“One thing does make my job easier — the guesswork aspect is gone.”

The old form of being a tastemaker, and a filter and an editor and a gatekeeper is that you had to guess at what people wanted. Every month you would guess, and I’m hired for my taste and judgement and experience, because people think that I can guess better than somebody else.

Hollywood, record labels, television executives were always just guessing. Part of our job is making things better and part of our jobs is predicting demand. And every time we get it wrong. Not entirely wrong, but every month, there’s some story that I didn’t expect to be popular that turned out to be popular and some story that I thought would be popular that turned out not to be so popular.

Maybe my hit-rate is better than others, but it’s certainly not perfect. The lesson right now of the long-tail world is that you now have increasingly powerful tools to measure what people want. Put it all out there and let the market sort it out.

We can now do that and the question for editors is ‘how can I tap those measurement tools to make it less guesswork and spotting what’s going to be hot and packaging it in a way that makes it hotter yet?’

In the music industry, this would be following the buzz on MySpace and signing new bands that seem to get traction. What’s comparable for print media?

Obviously we look at the blogosphere to generate new ideas, to tap into ascendant people and ideas.

This gives us a fantastic information-gathering exercise. But that’s available to all, that’s not exclusive to print. The other aspect is whether we can use this technology of dialogue, of conversation with your readers to make your product better.

And for that, I would give you the example of how I wrote my book. ‚Ķ I would never write a book again that wasn’t basically done as open-source research project on a blog, in collaboration with my readers. So the obvious question is, why wouldn’t I run a magazine in the same way?

“US journalism’s model of objectivity and evenhandedness and giving both sides of the story is, I believe, an artefact of the days of scarcity.”

When there were only one or two newspapers in each town there was basically only one way to get information out there. And because they had this responsibility, as the sole provision of news, they needed to be as even-handed as possible, and be the fourth estate, the counterbalance to government.

But today, you have many sources of information and no single one has to be sole provider. As a result, you don’t have to offer both sides. You can assume that you can offer the side that you believe in strongly and the other side. They’ll get out there their own way. Readers do not read single sources — they’re reading many sources — and will make up their own mind based on multiple points of view expressed as strongly as only their holders can express them.

That is of course the British model — a left-wing press and and a right-wing press which are very transparent about where they’re coming from. If you want two points of view, you read two newspapers.

That’s also the perspective of the blogosphere, of course, where nobody tries to be everything to everybody because you don’t have to and you can’t.

Instead they say what they believe, and you read lots of blogs and you make up your mind.

I think the AP style, which has become New York Times style, has dominated the culture of journalism in the US as one of objectivity or being dispassionate, is going to evolve simply because they’re competition from very passionate voices. This is what I talk about — the shift from dispassionate to passionate media. They’re still responsible to be factual and fair, they’re just not trying to make everything into two sides.

• The Long Tail is published by Random House.

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