Is your news organization a fire hose or a block party?

News organizations should recognize themselves to be either a fire hose or a neighborhood block party and, if particularly robust, they should have both and discern the different strategies for each.

After joining an Aspen Institute Roundtable in D.C. back in June, I met up with NPR Project Argo’s Matt Thompson, who I teamed up with around CAT Signal a few months earlier. As we tend to do, we got lost in a long and rambling conversation that came to a philosophical point from Thompson: not enough news sites recognize what they are, simply a fire hose, spreading their audience to what is interesting and important.

First, two quick definitions in this context: (a) a fire hose site has relatively large traffic with more drive-by readers and (b) a block party site has relatively less traffic with highly focused and more loyal readers. In our conversation, Thompson introduced the ideas of fire hoses. I started thinking about block parties.

Right now, Thompson said, the organizations behind those fire hoses are limiting their future by focusing on the decaying destination site model and so limiting their fire hoses to only their own content. That is, as I’ve written, should be a hub community gathering all the best information in the region, but, despite some early experiments, it isn’t significantly playing the game. The site only points to content from its sister papers, the Inquirer and the Daily News, so when, say, the Inquirer misses (or flat out ignores) some big stories, it’s as if they never happened.

If the online audience comes to realize that, could lose that viewership. Fire hoses, Thompson and I discussed, need to be indiscriminate in their blasting. If it’s good, credible, relevant content, spray that fire hose. That becomes the value of the fire hose in the future.

What I pushed on was that block parties need to be intensely local (in geography or topic), attracting those loyal, relevant readers. The wider in coverage a block party goes, the more it risks failing. Indeed, the transition from block party to fire hose is a tricky one.

However, something Thompson and I did talk about was how in any given relationship within reason, a site could be a fire hose in one case and a block party in another, if done correctly. Meaning, could be a block party (for Philly readers) and, say, a Yahoo News page could be the fire hose, yet that same site could be a fire hose for Technically Philly, which, in turn, could be fire hose for a web developer’s project blog.

The revenue, marketing and editorial strategies of any given site should be focused around a true understanding of which it is first: fire hose or block party. That can mean everything.

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