Ezra Klein tries to figure out why The Economist and NPR are doing so well while so many other traditional news organizations are doing so poorly:
The first is that they both situate themselves firmly between news and opinion, in that netherworld I think of as analysis. This is a hobbyhorse for me, but my grand theory of the media right now is that the rise of online media made newsgathering an extremely crowded and quick marketplace. That’s left a lot of publications that either aren’t used to the competition (think newspapers) or aren’t suited to the pace (think newsweeklies) a bit confused about their identity.
Some of them have responded by embracing opinion. That’s also a bad move. The opinion marketplace is, if anything, more crowded than the news marketplace, and it’s hard to really break through in it unless you’re willing to travel pretty far along the partisan continuum. But because news stories move so much faster and opinion is so much louder, there’s actually more demand for media that explains what those fast-moving stories are actually about. This is a need that is going largely unmet. Both the Economist and NPR are imperfect products, but that’s fundamentally what they’re doing. It’s not quite newsgathering, and it’s not straight opinion, though there’s occasionally opinion in there. It’s analysis. It’s how to understand the stuff that other people are reporting and opining.
Meanwhile, both brands have morphed into statements. For better or worse, carrying the Economist is sort of like wearing a shirt that says “I’m smart and worldly and interested in knowing things about Ghana.” But unlike a shirt saying all that, it actually works to convey that impression. An NPR bag, for its part, is a signal of a particular brand of non-confrontational, college-educated, sightly-crunchy liberalism. Is that a stereotype? Sure. But it’s working for the station’s merchandise department.
This makes me think about the early history of newspapers — how big metropolitan dailies (and radio/television) eventually displaced extras and evening editions, minority and ethnic papers, more sharply political papers, and other variations that were more suited to either a faster pace of news reporting or a closer tie to readers’ identities. What emerged, especially at the national level, was something that was both denser (in terms of information) and looser (in terms of identity).