The decline of newspapers is a force for good.
Take a look at this:
2020 was an exceptional year for media companies. The first global pandemic in decades coupled with an American election. It is manna for journalists and media houses that want your eyeballs on their pages.
In South Africa, 2020 was exceptional in a myriad of ways:
The lockdown regulations
Ace Magashule’s arrest warrant
The variety of stories are simply endless. Any newspaper worth their salt would use these opportunities to build their reputation, but most did not.
There are common reasons why newspapers are dying, but I am ignoring those favouring my theory – that niche consumption is replacing mass consumption.
I have recently finished reading The Sovereign Individual by William Rees Mogg. The book’s thesis is that the Information Age (which we are currently living through) beckons the nation-state’s end. Rees-Mogg offers various compelling reasons for this phenomenon (most that I agree with) but the fundamental argument is that niches will create great wealth to those who are expert in those niches.
Even today, people have built million-dollar businesses playing video games or sharing their work on productivity. James Clear’s entire business revolves around teaching people how to develop habits. Pewdiepie makes millions of dollars mocking memes and playing video games. Belle Delphine makes over $1 million a month producing and curating her pornography.
The internet has created a global audience, and all you have to do is find your niche, exploit it and become an expert at it. Whether it be chess playing or teaching people how to study for exams or create videos on South African politics, the boundaries are determined by your mindset.
In this world of niches, why on earth would anyone want to buy a paper that has mass-produced news printed on it? How does it make sense to pay for a newspaper that covers many stories that bear no interest to you? You can read one page or 20 pages; the cost is the same.
In the age of hyper-specialized niches, mass media will not survive.
If you have to describe the Mail and Guardian’s unique selling point, how would you tell it? It is more complicated than you imagine. Now do the same experiment for The Star and Cape Times. Anything? Maybe some vague explanation of local news in a geographic area? Localisation is not a niche worth considering though.
These mass media newspapers do not have a niche, or they have an unexciting niche. More probably, they don’t even know what a niche is.
While conceptualising Morning Shot, I had a clear idea of what I wanted – a short daily video that focused on the analysis of South African politics. That was further constrained to the effects of ANC policy on my viewers’ lives. It is a hyper-niched subject. I rarely mention crime stories, nor do I talk about international politics. The content focuses on a niche within a niche. The results have been great so far (24 000 subscribers in a year), but more crucially, the show has diverse revenue streams.
The problem with newspapers is their lack of quality journalism and local revenue streams. Advertisers get more publicity paying an Instagram influencer than having a double spread in the Sunday Times. Niches matter and advertisers know this.
I am not sad that newspapers are dying. The conditions for their existence have ceased. Today’s needs are now for creative people to become the journalists of tomorrow, without having to be credentialed to do so.
An exciting time indeed.