Thoughts on “The Long Tail”

Most of the buzz about Chris Anderson’s bestselling book, The Long Tail, came and went four years ago. But the book and its subsequent critiques mean a lot to mynewspilot. The central thesis of the book put forth a revolutionary concept: The web has fundamentally changed product delivery, allowing for infinite shelf-space and marginal distribution costs. In turn, online companies can make a killing by focusing on niche markets which will blossom with the increasing availability of fringe products.

This theory recieved almost as much critique as praise. Anita Elberse wrote in the Harvard Business Review that, as good as niche markets are, it makes more sense to focus on hits.

“Blockbusters are capturing even more of the market than they used to, and consumers in the tail don’t really like niche products much.” -Anita Elberse

The explosion of niches actually reinforces mainstream culture. A good representation of this is what I would like to call the “hipster model.” Hipsters, in an effort to create a counterculture, actually created and supported popular culture (i.e. Portlandia, Urban Outfitters, Phixie bikes, Mac computers). And, in addition, many of the people repulsed by hipsters reverted to more traditional outlets. For example, “I can’t wear this scarf in spring, it’s too hipster,” or “Bleh! Another indie art gallery? That’s too hipster.”

So what does this mean for our news site? Online news readers are visiting a number of small sites. Maybe they go to the local newspaper’s site first. Then they check out nytimes.com, followed by the Gawker sites and Huffington Post. But in visiting a number of major media sites, they themselves are becoming a niche. Even though they visited 3 major news brands, only a few other readers visit those exact same brands in any given week. So the combination of those creates it’s own market.

That hints at exactly what we are trying to do with mynewspilot. We want to grab the combination of news sites that a particular reader likes to visit. Millions upon millions of people visit nytimes.com, but only a few thousand visit that site AND Rolling Stone. We can still rely on new, niche sites. In fact, we’ve included a number of them in our site. But we are still relying on the major, brick-and-mortar sites to keep a cohesive whole. We can’t get away from the legacy newspapers that made journalism great. It’s a combination of both ends of the tail that truly make up a readers need for news. So we’re trying to do just that: combine both ends of the tail.

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