Is niche journalism the new business model that can save the profession?
The so-called endangered world of traditional journalism is fast coming to grips with one hard, tested business principle: people will pay for something that is of value. Offer something for free, and regardless of the goodness of your intention, they will tend to value it less and take it for granted. In applying that to the internet where gazillions of data float around for free, just ripe for the picking, media publishers are turning to niche journalism as the next business model to save the day.
While niche journalism still has to be formally defined (and it’s difficult to find one even in the online dictionaries), it was the term that was coined following the success of Politico’s radical approach to the profession. Mainstream news agencies cover every relevant news that breaks out around the nation, the major cities, and the world. Politico redefined itself by specializing in just a few choice topics.
As managing editor Bill Nichols describes their strategy, “Rule No. 1 for us is bracingly simple, yet revolutionary in practice: We don’t cover everything. We cover politics, lobbying, Congress and the White House and executive branch. Outside that, from Tiger Woods to Britney Spears, from Lindsay Lohan to World Cup results and back again, we are perfectly comfortable knowing our readers will seek that coverage somewhere else.”
Niche journalism can also trace its roots to community journalism, which Bill Mitchell, director of electronic publishing at the San Jose Mercury News, says is a focus on specific news that caters to a certain group of people within a location, making it a community. In the good old days of traditional print journalism, community papers, for example, would cover the most important news that happened within a certain time period in a certain town or state. The opening of a new library or supermarket, the election of a new mayor, the recruitment of the university football star by a top national sports team, among others, would be fair game. In transitioning to the online world, the parameters have changed, as the definition of the community is no longer based on physical location, but a common group or community interest.
Many virtual communities can find information and news online free-of-charge. However, newspapers making the transition to digital are betting that offering the reading public news that they could not find anywhere else would make them more than willing to pay. One pioneer isBlackrock Reporter who opens its content only to paying subscribers. It targets business leaders, political figures, educators, lawyers, and union organizers with its analyses on the impact of economic development, legislation, and market trends on their institutions. Blackrock Reporter also places itself as a premium based not just on what it publishes, but what it also does not include; it does not cover the usual press conferences or crowded events that the majority of news agencies flock to.
Its capacity to localize news while maintaining its interest among the greater international audience is one of the reasons behind the success of news app Born2Invest. Its 80,000-strong community of investors, entrepreneurs, business managers, CEOs, and hard-driving professionals share one powerful common interest: consuming regular, updated, in-depth news that can guide them towards making informed decisions. Born2Invest’s content comes from reliable news agencies around the world and is curated by its own team of experienced journalists. Many of these online reporters are based in other countries, and easily and readily add local flavor to the news, making it more insightful and relevant to the readers in the region where the news happened, while preserving the broader global context.
Online community journalism or niche journalism—regardless of how the term evolves—has papers, even the bigger and more established ones, getting into the act. The formidable Wall Street Journal has launched The Logistics Report which focuses specifically on specialized topics like transportation and trade infrastructure. As its business editor Dennis Berman tells Digiday, “It’s very focused. That’s kind of the point. There are tens of billions of dollars at stake with these questions. If we can combine our general audience expertise and our specific subject matter expertise, most of the time we get it right.”
So might other media companies that follow in its footsteps and enter the next phase of online journalism.