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March 2, 2009, 12:24 p.m.

What Jimmy Fallon — yes, Jimmy Fallon — can teach newspapers

Jimmy Fallon’s new Conan-O’Brien-replacing late-night show debuts tonight. Will it be any good? Probably not, at least at first. (Conan wasn’t much good when he started, either.)

But this article by Nicholas Carlson gives me some hope that Fallon’s show is ready to innovate in the right directions. And it also provides a few lessons that news companies would be smart to take up. Carlson outlines six ways the show will be different from its predecessors — here they are, along with what they’d mean in a news context:

— “[T]he show will eventually (not at the start) bring live commercials back to broadcast television.”

Lesson for news: Be willing to experiment with advertising that people will pay attention to. For TV shows, the problem is that Tivo makes it easy to skip over commercials; for news web sites, it’s that our eyes were trained long ago to ignore online ads, which don’t get anywhere near the attention that a good print ad does. Obviously, there are ethical issues at play, but news organizations will have to find some way for advertisers to reach readers if they expect to get a good return for their audience’s attention.

— “Much like a blog, the show’s writers will dig up topical content from the Internet.”

Lesson for news: Link out. Engage with the world around you, and draw upon the best of it to serve your audience. The more link-love you send out to the web, the more you get back — just as I’m sure Fallon is hoping to gain the support of the people whose content he’ll be talking about on his show.

— “[Co-producer Gavin Purcell] says he wants the show’s writers to use [the show’s web site] to test out ideas — as ‘a kind of farm team for the show.’ It’ll work the other way too. Gavin said that after Jimmy’s done with guests on the show, producers will give them each a Flip cam to play with backstage. The footage — edited but not over-produced — will later find its way onto the Web.”

Lesson for news No. 1: Find a safe place to experiment. The glorious thing about the web is how easy it is to try something new. You don’t have to buy another printing press; you don’t have to radically change your organizational structure. Experiments can be frequent and small; the best can build into something big.

Lesson for news No. 2: Look for the cheap byproducts of what you’re already producing. Jason Fried likes to use the analogy of sawdust: The lumber industry could view it as a useless byproduct of their “real” work, or it could see it as a product of its own, that it can package and sell on its own. In the same way, Fallon can use his guests for something beyond the five minutes they’ll sit on a couch next to his desk — he can also get some web video from them, for what amounts to zero investment. What are the byproducts of reporting that don’t make it into the 12-inch story that runs in the paper?

— “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon will be interactive. Jimmy already uses Twitter and Facebook. Expect those services to be integrated into the production of the show.”

Lesson for news: Use social media. I’ve been amazed in four months of running this site how important Twitter and Facebook are to our success. Twitter is the single best marketing tool we have. News organizations need to invest the time to interact with their audience where they are.

— “Expect in-show segment sponsorships. Not as much in a sports show but more than talk shows have now.”

Lesson for news: Be willing to experiment with advertising that people will pay attention to. (See above.)

— “Also look for different kinds of celebrity guests on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon — geekier ones. ‘Steve Jobs is a celebrity to us,’ Gavin said, giving an example.”

Lesson for news: Embrace niche over mass. Talk shows are the very definition of a mass medium; their most valued guests are big Hollywood stars or others who have as wide an appeal as possible. But in a world with 500 channels and an infinite number of web sites, it can be more valuable to have a devoted-but-narrow niche than a larger audience that only barely cares about you. Reaching out to a geekier audience might be one way to differentiate Fallon from the competition — even if it means turning off some people in the mainstream.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     March 2, 2009, 12:24 p.m.
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