Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Can “1,000 fans” be a new approach to journalism?

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 3, 2010

You’ve probably heard of the Longtail theory about making money on the internet.

It was dreamed up by Chris Anderson in an article on Wired back in 2004 and goes a bit like this: traditional retailers make money by targeting the bulk of customers to the left of the chart above. In other words, Waterstones makes most its money on bestselling books, which appeal to the mass market; it makes less money selling niche titles to the few niche fans (that’s the long tail). On the internet, Anderson argued, the long tail is bigger: there are more niche customers, and therefore it is possible to make a living selling niche titles alone.

Amazon, Chris says, makes most of its cash selling a wide variety of niche items to niche customers, and there’s enough of them to keep the company going. Anderson later went onto say we can all become millionaires online by giving stuff away for free, so let’s not take everything as a given, but the Long Tail approach has led to another concept, alive and well online.

1,000 ‘true fans’

The Long Tail is good for consumers and good for people like Amazon. Not so good for the content creators: artists, photographers, writers, musicians, film makers – and journalists – all finding it difficult to make a living in the digital world.

What if, as journalists, instead of making content to be seen by millions for free, we make stuff to be seen by just 1,000 people – who will all pay for it. It’s the concept that 1,000 true fans are better than 10 million sort-of fans.

A ‘true fan’ is someone who will buy absolutely everything you create. They love you so much they’ll drive 150 miles to see you speak at the Hay Festival, they’ll buy every book you write in hardback and paperback, they download everyone of your podcasts, or buy your documentary on DVD even though they’ve already seen it online. You might not think you could attract even a thousand fans, writing about industry or farming. But if your journalism was exceptional, if what you say is remarkable, there are enough people physically out there to become your own “fans.” Columnists in the national newspaper have that appeal, writing all sorts of crap. Why can’t you?

Never mind the millions –  get just 1,000 of these true fans, and you could make a reasonable living. What if we applied this approach to journalism? Would that work? Just an idea at the moment, let me know what you reckon.