In recent commentaries about the business of journalism and blogging, the power law is invoked with sundry associated notions about long tails and the 80-20 rule. In a variety of contexts, and supporting a variety of arguments, the case is typically this: In publishing (and the same holds true for other media, no doubt) the top 20% of popular content generates 80% of readership and, by extension, the vast majority of media economics. The remaining 80% of published content – the long tail – produces a fragmented and marginal return. The principle, as illustrated here in a specific manifestation, describes the impact of all top performers, not only in media but in all realms marked by a multitude of performers who compete.
I am wondering, however, about a different relationship between the long tail and the vital few – one that is maybe as important – and whether studies exist to quantify it. In particular, I am thinking about the support that the long tail provides to the concentrated top end, (as opposed to the mere proportion between them). As I understand the statistical observations described above, these enable us to estimate the relative distribution between parts, and are not ways in which to take the absolute measures. But maybe there is also another correlation – beyond the 80-20 and 20-80 – that has something to do with the positive effect of the tail upon the vital. Is it possible, for example, that the few are made more valuable by the existence of the many? Not by comparison, not as a result of grandeur through contrast, so to speak, but absolutely, as a result of enhanced flow.
To rephrase the question less abstractly, returning to the subjects of journalism and media with which I began, can it be said that the most popular articles will be more widely read as the long tail increases the size of the overall audience? Intuitively, one might think so. And one would think that it is in the interest of the vital few for the long tail to thrive, because out of it arises interest, attention, participation, and larger scale. Until I stumble upon one or two statistical studies to prove or disprove the correctness of my intuition, let’s go along with it and, in so doing, digest some of the latest news in media accordingly. A few examples:
AOL’s acquisition of Huffington Post, after TechCrunch and Engadget, marks a content consolidation play that is not a diminution of the long tail, as each of the acquired properties is kept intact with the full fragmentation of their respective authorships and audiences. This is a different variation of a similar theme at Demand Media, Yahoo!, and for that matter AOL itself, as these all continue to publish selections from the popular filter in which the long tail is the breeding ground. Finally, Apple’s new publisher subscription system can, in one respect, be seen as aimed at the long tail of published content, and a means to enhance the distribution of media’s less popular base.
If my thesis about the value of the long tail to the vital few is correct, Apple is – in one respect, and seemingly unbeknownst to popular media outlets – doing them a potentially good turn. Whether Apple’s 30% cut of the action (and ownership of user data) is appropriate for the value created, that depends on math and studies and economic substantiation. I’m only going with my hunch, and maybe so is Apple for now.