The rich get richer, the poor scramble

“The truth is, in 2018 and beyond, it’s only going to be more expensive to maintain a successful news website. That will lead to further inequality between big and small news organizations. The big will become bigger, and the ones that are smaller, well, they will have to scramble for audience.”

For the past year, we have seen flurries of reports about the successes of some traditional newspapers in the digital marketplace. The New York Times hits 3 million total subscribers! The Washington Post is actually hiring people! That is great, but the success of big players in journalism can actually hide how small players are not going to be able to keep up. The truth is, in 2018 and beyond, it’s only going to be more expensive to maintain a successful news website. That will lead to further inequality between big and small news organizations. The big will become bigger, and the ones that are smaller, well, they will have to scramble for audience.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The internet, after all, would be the domain of the long tail: those smaller websites that can still find their niche audience and be competitive, even if there are few really big players. But in 2018 and beyond, acquiring and keeping an audience is going to take more tech expertise and all-around firepower.

The Post and the Times are buoyed by their top-notch investigative journalism in the age of Trump, smart collaborations with tech, and positive brand recognition (let’s not forget the high-profile movie out this month). But aside from that, there are underlying reasons for sustained success among the big newspapers. Their economic dominance is key in a market that requires more and more advanced tools to grow and retain audience in our algorithmically-defined age.

The Post is already using predictive algorithms and data analysis to determine which stories will be more successful. The Times has announced 2018 will be the “Year of the Audience” (notice: not “the public,” not “the readers,” but “the audience”), with more specialized top-level leadership that will devote themselves to metrics and strategize how to “best compete for [the audience’s] time and attention.”

What about smaller, local newspapers? Well, first, most of them are not in D.C., covering the big, flashy beat, the Trump White House. Secondly, their smaller scale is not enough to convert into the richness of resources to make great reporting investments, design better webpages, and hire the talent that allows websites to stay on top of social media and search results.

All this adds up to the fact that smaller, less popular newsrooms have a tricky task ahead of them. And it can mean that the further concentration of news organizations is unavoidable. In this darkest timeline, the admission price of the news business is just too expensive for the little guys.

Sure, it’s great that we have journalism behemoths out there, doing their amazing work. But think of all the news that wouldn’t be covered or the perspectives that would be lost if all the smaller newsrooms went away.

Daniel Trielli is a journalist and Ph.D. student in media, technology, and society at Northwestern University.

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