Summer Reporter 2011: Discovering new niches in the news market (Part II)


A dream came true for Dutch journalist Gemma van der Kamp when she was given the opportunity this summer to embark on an investigative trip to report on the theme “Journalism without Journalists” in eight European countries.

In the first half of my trip, I spoke mainly with innovative non-journalistic organisations which had discovered niches to be exploited in the news market or found a way to repair the cracks in the news supply of shrinking traditional media.

United Kingdom - The professional blogger

To earn a third of one’s total income by scribbling about garden sheds may sounds far-fetched but this is exactly what the Briton Alex Johnson does. I set out for the sleepy city of St. Albans to talk to the professional blogger who who operates a blog emporium from his own little garden shed.

It all started about ten years ago when Johnson became a father. He resigned from his job and decided to work as a freelancer from home, or better, from the little shed in his garden.  Johnson became fascinated with working from garden houses, sheds and huts.

Alex Johnson’s first workshed

He started writing a newsletter about the newest garden houses and the social consequences of working from home, which he would mail to fellow home workers.  His newsletter turned into a blog with an active group of subscribers.

The blog grew into a website and started attracting the interest of advertisers.

Johnson coined the expression “shedworking” and published his first book in 2010: Shedworking: the alternative workplace revolution.  A success story to make many a journalist envious: Johnson so far has earned a total of GBP 46.000 thanks to his website and book.

Lonely home workers

The key to Johnson’s success is that he understands the tricks of online journalism. He found a dedicated niche of fellow shedworkers and knows how to manage this specific online community. 

“The target group is perfect: homeworkers often feel quite lonely without direct colleagues. They are happy to share experiences and learn more about the specificities of their working environment.”

Every day he searches, selects, edits and links stories, pictures and tips about sheds and the social aspects of working alone. With two blog posts a day his news output is much more prolific than that of specialised magazines.

Alex Johnson’s blog

How can one define Johnson in journalistic terms? The flickering ads at the bottom of his blog posts may cast some doubts as to his independence, but Johnson says that he doesn’t promote companies in his writings and only places ads matching the topic of his articles.

Johnson likes to call himself a professional blogger because he has a background in journalism and knows how to source and write stories. Above all, he has achieved something not many bloggers have: he is earning a lot of money by blogging about his passion.

Johnson maintains a satellite blog about bookshelves, which he sees as “the indispensable attribute for the design of a shed.”  A book on the topic is on its way.

Denmark – the citizen journalist

In Denmark I found myself riding along in the news bus of the remarkable citizen journalist Peder Kristensen. Using his extraordinary imaginative power Kristensen has built a brand around himself and his news service His news provision centres on the tiny Danish village of Tistrup whose population hardly exceeds 2.000 inhabitants, most of whom are older than 60.

Every day Kristensen, who was originally trained as a machine worker, drives around Tistrup in search for news in his bus covered with sponsored ads from local companies. He visits every art exhibit, company reception or sports game in the village, takes pictures and writes up short articles which he publishes on his website. His daily trips through Tidstrup have earned him the nickname of Mr. News, a name the hyperlocal journalist is more than proud of.

Peder Kristensen in front of this news bus

For Kristensen, Tistrup is like a metropolis in need of branding. He dreams of setting up a live stream screen in the central square of the village.  I chuckle as I look at the desolate spot and ask him: What will be on the live stream? “The latest news, pictures – everything about Tistrup!” says Kristensen with great enthusiasm.

The key to success

Strikingly, most of Kristensen’s ambitious dreams eventually seem to come true. Thanks to a subsidy from the European Commission, he is currently busy building a media house for the local community. He also arranged for slideshows of his pictures to be displayed on a big television screen in the regional art gallery. His website attracts a total of 600-1000 visitors per day, a remarkable achievement for such a local platform. This is hyperlocal citizen journalism in its most successful format.

The secret of Kristensen’s success becomes clear as he takes me on a seven hour tour through the village. Kristensen is doing what traditional journalists have been doing for ages: he is going where the news is. The citizen journalist is everywhere, all the time. Since the launch of his website in 2009, he has written 400 news articles and shot 15.000 pictures. 

Kristensen’s journalistic independence is however questionable as he produces advertisements for local companies and admits that his work is hardly critical. “I cannot attack people directly,” he explains. “They need me to promote their activities and companies.”

Peder Kristensen at work

“But when residents complain about certain things, I go and ask what is wrong and write that up in an article.”

His energy and determination are admirable, but the lack of journalistic independence, balance and structure in his work, probably mean that he will remain an untrained citizen journalist who will not be able to sell his work to a professional newspaper.

My presence, however, helped him to partly fulfil another dream: by accepting to be interviewed by a Dutch journalist, he has succeeded in giving international exposure to his beloved Tistrup.

Italy – Non-profit organisations

In the Italian city of Brescia I visit the radio studio of Radio Onda d’Urto (Shockwave radio) which is starting to repair the cracks in the news supply of shrinking mainstream media.

Radio Onda d’Urto started out as a radical leftist platform to give a voice to protests against nuclear energy after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Today it fights for the cause of refugees and other minorities in Italy by producing live coverage of social protests. The people running the radio station usually give their full support to these demonstrations.

Founder Umberto Gobbi at Radio Onda d’Urto

Of all the people I have met on my trip, they are among the few who claim not to be journalists at all – in spite of the fact that half of the reporters among them possess a journalistic background. They see themselves as militants, as the portraits of Fidel Castro and Karl Marx decorating their tiny studio appear to confirm.

New power

Their position as militants, however, is exactly where their power seems to lie in a news age when the voices of the people who are closest to the news, count most.

Earlier this year, the radio was able to rely on its network of African refugees to cover the social unrest in Egypt. Families and friends of the refugees reported from the centre of the protests - some were journalists, others not.  When the situation on location became critical, forcing the big media outlets in Italy to stop broadcasting, the crew of Radio Onda d’Urto continued to stream live. This material was later used by mainstream media.

NGOs and journalism

I see a strong resemblance between the work of Radio Onda d’Urto and what many big non-profit NGOs are starting to do. They use their knowledge and means of access to specific areas to bring news that traditional media groups can no longer cover because of budget cuts and other restraints.

UNHCR news service Project Storytelling

Reporters Sans Frontières in Paris, the Italian humanitarian NGO Emergency and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Genève all have set up their own news services and send off diplomats and journalists with their staff into the field.

Emergency publishes its news reports in its daily newspaper The Peaceworker. The UNHCR for its part claims to have a ‘totally independent’ broadcast news service  run by professional journalists” and allows big media groups to use its footage.

Journalism without Journalists?

What do these three examples have in common, in relation to the theme of my investigation? All three initiatives share a keen sense for innovation and anticipation in a changing news environment and expanding online market.

When it comes to the future of the endangered journalistic profession, this first part of the trip offers some consolatory conclusions. In every example I found, journalistic training and experience still seem to be important.

This shows that there are many more opportunities for journalists to use their skills in less obvious fields than they may have thought at first.

This is the second in a series of three articles dedicated to Gemma van der Kamp’s Summer Reporter project.

Related articles:

Summer reporter 2011: Introduction (Part I)
Summer Reporter 2011: Underground professional journalism (Part III)