Who Says the News Business Is Dead?

You can't read a story or watch a broadcast report about the news business without hearing dire predictions of how bad things are. Newspapers are cutting back staff or even outright closing the doors. Trade magazines are in trouble. Network news suffers declining audiences. Professional journalists are worried about their careers. Yes, indeed it is bad out there.

Yet while so many people are focused on the bad news, I'd like to explore two recent entrants into the news business that are positively thriving. Both Politico.com and TMZ.com, in just a very short time, have built major media companies. So what makes these two upstarts so successful while stalwarts lay off staff and struggle to say in the black?

I'd argue that unlike many of their more established (struggling) predecessors, the people behind Politico and TMZ understand that the web is a real-time news marketplace. Rather than focus on the news cycle of daily newspaper and evening news businesses, Politico and TMZ specialize in breaking news and real-time analysis.

With Politico covering breaking news in the world of American politics and TMZ focused on popular entertainment, these media companies seized on the benefits of web delivery. Unlike traditional media companies that publish on a 24-hour offline news cycle and see the web as an afterthought for republishing content that was originally created for print or broadcast, Politico and TMZ realized the web is the perfect basis for a new media business model and where news should break first.

The rise of TMZ as a major player in breaking entertainment news can be traced to its exclusive reporting on some of the biggest stories in entertainment. For example, TMZ is cited as breaking the news of Michael Jackson's death. Before the news broke, TMZ was exclusively reporting from Jackson's Los Angeles-area home as the ambulance pulled away with his body (resulting in the TMZ logo appearing on thousands of images in the early hours of Jackson's death). TMZ also exclusively broke news of Michael Richards' racist comments at the Laugh Factory club. And some years ago in an early exclusive, TMZ broke the news of the Britney Spears/Kevin Federline marriage breakup. These scoops showed other media companies that TMZ is on top of celebrity stories, and, increasingly, other media outlets began referencing TMZ on breaking events.

The Politico site rose much in the same way as TMZ, though with a very different subject and audience. Politico was launched by former Washington Post reporters before the 2008 presidential election. With quick, web-based reporting on major political stories during the presidential and other elections (and, later, in other political stories such as the daily nuances in the attempt to pass the healthcare reform bill), Politico serves an audience of people who are passionate about American politics.

Despite the difference in subject matter, there are many similarities between TMZ and Politico. Both are brand new media companies that began publishing online and that don't have the baggage of huge staffs, printing presses, or television studios to worry about. Each chose a niche market and built a reporting machine to cover minute details of subjects that a relatively small but passionate fan base is interested in. Both report in a fast-paced way. And both have evolved as a trusted inside source that are must-reads for other journalists covering the space (as demonstrated by how often TMZ and Politico breaking stories are cited in other media).

I do think the main thing that TMZ and Politico figured out is the tremendous appetite the public has for real-time breaking news. Of course, financial market wire services from companies including Dow Jones, Reuters, and Bloomberg have been delivering real-time news to financial market participants such as traders and fund managers for many decades. However, the provision of web-based real-time news in niches including entertainment and political areas is new.

No, the news business is not dead. When a new player finds a niche that people are looking for coverage in and builds a site that serves millions of users, it shows that the business is evolving.

I wonder if it always requires a new player to start such a new media company. Why didn't The Washington Post create something like Politico? (One wonders if its staff members made the suggestion to no avail before they left the newspaper.) And why didn't People magazine create something like TMZ? Again, the answer is real time. The culture of the daily newspaper or weekly magazine doesn't lend itself to the fast-paced world of breaking news online. Clearly, old media needs to take a page from new media's playbook