AR; the long tail of news

The long tail of news is probably too thin to matter – this is how the conclusion of a recent study could be summed up.

The quantitative analysis of a large sample of various French-speaking news sites (among them professional ones as well as amateur blogs) revealed the totality of their contents to be “varied and very unevenly distributed:” at any given moment, news contents of the web focus overwhelmingly on a handful of topics that are perceived important, and complementing this “large head” of news content emerges an extremely varied multitude of “other news.” In what the authors see as an inconsistency with what the long tail theory suggests, the tail of online news is too thin to be meaningful. Smaller news sites don’t seem to use each other; they don’t seem to have a network among them which would get around the most important nodes.

Which is to say: there is a kind of qualified pluralism on the web – which doesn’t mean that a few influential news producers don’t dominate the online news agenda.

Two small points about this. First- it seemed to me as though the authors wanted to take advantage of the buzzword-qualities of the expression “long tail;” and they themselves acknowledge that applying a theory of online business dealing with perennial products might not be so useful in providing a picture of the world of ephemeral online news. The long tail theory is about how small niche markets could be connected and relied on; what interests the authors here is whether or not the web offers us the pluralism that is sometimes expected from it.

Second- the authors refer, in places, to the “redundancy” of news topics, as established on the basis of lexical analysis of news items and headlines. But a similarity among the topics covered will probably always hide a heterogeneity of points, attitudes and aspects covered – which is perhaps a more meaningful understanding of what pluralism should be about. In fact, one could argue that a certain amount of “redundancy” is the best thing there can be: important events should be written about many times, from many different points of view.

Having said that, of course one big promise of the web is indeed that it will also extend the scope of issues publicized and reflected on. In some cases, the need for pluralism in what is covered might be hard to reconcile with the need for pluralism in how it is covered. But then again, in some cases, the two might go hand in hand.

Come to think of it, this duality is well expressed in the long tail news idea after all. The tail needs to be long – made up of a variety of topics -, but also substantially thick: i.e. each of these topics are expected to be covered not only by a single source, but by many, perhaps in their networked cooperation or process of critique and reflection on each other.

Nikos Smyrnaios, Emmanuel Marty & Franck Rebillard (2010): “Does the Long Tail apply to online news? A quantitative study of French-speaking websites,” in: New Media and Society 12(8), 1244 – 1261.

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