In many ways the parlous, scanty economics of mainstream print media in the UK and the US resembles the barren state of American network television in the late 1970s before HBO came along to stake its claim over high-quality serial drama and force others to up their game.
A good example, if only in miniature, is the rise and rise of Politico. Launched in 2007 by two former Washington Post staffers (a paper which has continued its lurch downwards), Politico is now one of the most visited news sites in the United States.
It’s achieved this not by reaching for the middle ground but by narrowing its appeal to news junkies who don’t just like politics – they live and breathe it.
The result, as much as those cryptic early series of The Wire, has been to organically grow an audience which is wildly enthusiastic about the product and which keeps coming back for more.
This, more than all the hyperbole about interactivity, is what engagement really means – the conversion of hawkish online consumers into regular visitors who thrive on the insiderishness of the read and come to see it as part of their weekly news diet.
The winners in this brave new world of working within vast online eco-systems are going to be those who can stake out a distinctive niche, build their authority over it and stick to their guns over the long term.
Much more so than the traditional news media, they’re going to be global and highly distinctive (even recherché) rather than national and mainstream.
As much as niche-busting drug companies, news sites like Politico and The Register are unencumbered by the old organisations and ways of doing things, which makes it cheaper and easier for them to concentrate their attention on what they do best.
Distinctive niches like Politico find that they can charge a premium for their advertising because readers identify with their product. As all of us lean more heavily on cultural totems as an expression of our identity, the nature of advertising is changing.
It’s becoming less about using mainstream media to slice and dice demographics, which was always a depressing and erroneous science, and more about using distinctive media itself to identify the audience instead.
For news proprietors who stand their ground, who refuse to follow the road to the lowest common denominator or be sucked into the vortex of social media for its own sake, the economics of new news media will eventually be made to work.
And for anyone who cares about news – real news and not filler – the future looks very bright indeed.
James Harkin is the author of Niche: The Missing Middle and Why Business Needs to Specialise to Survive www.amzn.to/TEnN1z