Are Tweens The Solution to the Newspaper Crisis?

Online news and newspaper sites are either struggling to attract audiences or generate revenue (and some struggle with both).  The reasons are many: news sites have to compete for attention with blogs, social networks, and other channels in the increasingly crowded online world; as audiences have more opportunities to connect, get and share information, and even create their own news content, the value of a destination news site is hard to demonstrate; and in an attempt to satisfy as many audiences as possible, most news and newspaper sites have screwed up the design and presentation of information such that people can’t find what they want anyway.

If you knew that, would you launch a news site?  How about one devoted to tweens (young kids who are heavy online users, but notoriously difficult to reach, or to please).  I don’t think so, you’d have to be crazy.  But Alan Jacobson doesn’t want to hear that.  He has just launched a new online newspaper site, TweenTribune, with news entirely devoted to tweens.

There isn’t much to TweenTribune. The product is simple, most/all of the content is repurposed from other sites (this morning’s edition has links to articles from Reuters, Newsday, ABC News and Yahoo! for example), and there is only one audience the site is designed to reach: tweens.  It is a niche news site in the most literal sense of the word.  Still, it may hold the key to the future of the online news and newspaper business.

I am pleased to report that of the many reasons Jacobson launched the project, at the top of the list is his belief that news, and newspapers, are important for everyone to read – regardless of age.  He told me he wants to “…encourage tweens to seek out news on a daily basis. Our democracy depends upon a well-informed public, so it’s important to foster a daily news-reading habit at an early age. TweenTribune does that by enticing tweens with a few offbeat stories they wouldn’t find elsewhere. Only TweenTribune promotes the daily habit because its the only news site for tweens that is updated daily.”

Jacobson’s goal for TweenTribune goes beyond his concern for an informed public, of course. “There is a more immediate need: to find a way to pay for journalism.”  He hopes that TweenTribune will demonstrate some revenue-generating strategies that will pay the costs for journalism in the near future – something news sites have failed to do to date.  He noted that TweenTribune is a proof-of-concept model that he hopes to deploy in many content niches. “Even modest success would be very meaningful if it could be applied to hundreds or thousands of niche-serving sites” he told me.

The model he proposes is a media world dominated by news and newspaper sites that reach, inform, and satisfy the expectations of just one audience, and one audience only.  Niche, in the truest sense of the word.  If there are a thousand niche audiences to serve, he will create a thousand niche news sites to serve them.  He chose Tweens as his first niche for personal reasons (he has two tweens) and practical reasons (tweens seemed under-served by other sites such as Time For Kids and Scholastic — the stories lack enough “edge” to entice tweens, they are not updated on a daily basis, and the design was not user-friendly, even seeming juvenile).

The question is whether Tweens will see TweenTribune for the benefit it provides, or even see it at all.

Jacobson has more than 20 years experience in the communications industry and has redesigned more than 50 newspapers.  He has written extensively about the problems with newspaper online sites, and proposed a set of alternative strategies (here, here, here and here).  So he sees TweenTribune as a prototype for a kind of news site that embraces many strategies newspapers have not pursued.  He’s trying to put his money where his mouth is.

Whether or not TweenTribune can do what other news sites have been trying, and failing, to do for years is the big question that must be answered.  Even if it is successful, however, there remains a question about whether existing news and newspaper sites are willing to embrace what makes TweenTribune unique (focus, discipling, etc.) and whether you can satisfy all the news needs of a niche audience this way.  Its too early to tell.  If it does succeed, the model can be quickly extended to other audience niches.  If it fails, I guess you can add it to the virtual recycling bin with everything else.

Update: I posted some additional thoughts, as well as a Q&A from my conversation with Alan Jacobson, on my blog, ThinkingAboutMedia.  Read it here.

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