You know your readers, but do you know who’s not reading?

As I continue to watch the news industry grab for a way out of the hole it has dug itself, I can certainly understand the frustration that blogger Mark Potts expressed in his recent posting.  I think most of the industry gadflies feel the same way as we watch the tide turn to forcing customers to pay for content.

The reports indicate that those who are planning pay formats during the year seem to know who their readers are. But, given the plans in place, you have to wonder if they know who their readers AREN”T. And aren’t they the ones you want to go after and keep?

If you look at most online news outlets today, they are basically electronic versions of the print product. They are focused at a general audience, with numerous categories (news, sports, business, local listings, local entertainment, classified ads, etc.). They are intended for an audience that is used to  accepting the overall package and sifting through it for what they want.

That was the mass audience that had few avenues for news for the past century. However, we’ve witnessed the break-up of the mass audience in the past 20 years. As new technologies, such as cable television and the advent of 24-hour news channels, cropped up in the 80’s, we began to see a slow erosion of the mass audience. The Internet’s arrival in the 90’s added to that erosion, but the introduction of cheap, high-speed internet and the advent of social networking was the grenade that blew the mass audience into bits.

Today’s audience has, literally, an overload of sources for news and information available at their fingertips. And instead mass audience, individuals are part of information communities. These communities can be based on a number of factors: geography, demographics, education, politics, hobbies, personal interests, etc. One person can be a member of many communities. But what make it unique is that the communities will obtain information and pass it along to other members of that particular group. And as members find interest in what others are sourcing, they will be likely to pass it along to other communities they belong to as well.

In today’s audience, the community member is the gatekeeper. It becomes the news organization’s role to provide them with information that is vital, useful and relevant to that group. If it is successful, then that organization is likely to be introduced to other communities through that reader or his particular group.

So, instead of providing a one-size-fits-all package, it would make more sense for the organization to target specific readership communities, and then create products that fit what that community is looking for. We’re seeing that happen with the latest incarnation of hyperlocal news sites, but even those could be targeted down to specific groups, such as products designed specifically for local businesses or a dynamic local social calendar.

In developing these products, they should be designed to meet what the customer is looking for, whether it be relevance, credibility, timeliness or convenience. We’ve already seen studies that indicate people would be willing to pay for content if it provides them with value and convenience. Those need to be two of the main criteria.

Then, once they are available, the organization must be able to sell itself into the targeted community. It must convince its members that the product is one they absolutely need to fulfill its demands for news and information. If it is successful and sustained, the community’s members will then carry your product to other communities…in effect taking it viral. That’s how your product will achieve success.

I’m still a firm believer that creating a number of small, limited-audience products of value and relevance would create a new revenue stream that may help keep the flagship afloat. But the key is that instead of forcing your current customers to pay more for your existing products, it would be wiser to attract new customers with dynamic, relevant products.

After all, aren’t paywalls akin to the government hiking your income tax?