“The decline of newspapers is the most concrete evidence of the disruptive effect the Long Tail can have on entrenched industries,” Wired editor Chris Anderson writes in his much-discussed book (which grew out of an article via a blog).

In The Long Tail, Anderson deals with the effect of his theory on the news business only in passing, but in a recent interview with Press Gazette**, he elaborated on how it applies to journalism and traditional publishing.

The theory is about the transformation of businesses by digitisation, particularly in the cultural industries. Barriers to entry and distribution have been dramatically altered because digital products are so cheap to create, distribute widely and archive indefinitely. Online, products can be made available that would have been prohibitively obscure for offline businesses to

The result is a market featuring a small number of high-demand blockbusters competing with an increasingly huge number of niche products with minute demand. Visually, this can be represented as a demand curve starting with a “short head” followed by a “long tail”.

Two “long tails” are transforming journalism, Anderson argues. One is a changing distribution of the value of stories over time. Because online archives are accessible forever via search engines, authoritative stories of lasting relevance will, in the long run, become more valuable than breaking news. As this realisation filters down, a change in news values is likely to occur.

“In a weird way, it completely inverts the calculus of news — which is that the new stuff is what matters and the old stuff
doesn’t matter – because the good old stuff gets more relevant over time as more people flag it up and link to it,” Anderson said.

Secondly, blogs represent a new long tail in competing publications. Big media may continue to dominate the mass-market short head, but the growing millions of blogs represent an important new long tail.

Journalists have been so slow to understand the impact of these changes and have frequently been contemptuous of blogs. Anderson offers an explanation for why: Those working in traditional cultural industries, he argues in the book, are so accustomed to trying to develop products with mass appeal that they suffer from “hitism” – the assumption that only those things that attract huge audiences have value and that the rest is amateur rubbish.

“A lot of journalists have an arrogance about our profession
that just does not reflect the reality of what people are reading right now,” Anderson said.

But this isn’t just arrogant, it’s factually incorrect. Print publications depend on economies of scale and must appeal to mass markets. Consequently, the countless niche topics that would never shift enough magazines or newspapers to sustain a print publications are being left to the blogosphere.

The recurring debate about whether blogging is a form of journalism is irrelevant to Anderson. Whether they like it or not, journalists are competing with bloggers for readers’ attention – and increasingly, the advertising revenue that pays their salaries.

“Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter what journalists think – this is happening anyway,” Anderson said. “Those of us who try to
understand it and figure out what is our place in a world of 27 million blogs are going to be the ones who really do figure what journalism’s next era is going to be about.”

Originally published in /discuss Journalism, 19 September 2006