Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

Choose a topic for which you can create ‘obsessives’

“Create obsessives,” digital director of Vanity Fair Mike Hogan said when I asked him about why Vanity Fair built a Hollywood-specific section.

Successful single-subject news sites create obsessive readers, according to several editors and publishers we consulted. These readers can be professionals whose work deals with the subject, sports fans who follow a particular team, hobbyists, or a group of people who care deeply about their local community.

Niche news products aim to be the very best at one particular topic, or one way of approaching the news — narrow comprehensiveness or “everything about something.”

“The main currency we are trading is not personality, point of view, or even a particularly distinctive voice,” wrote Elizabeth Green, the co-founder and editor of Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news site covering education policy. “The coin of our realm — the thing that took us from a couple of reporters squatting in somebody else’s basement to a soon-to-be more than $3 million-revenue news organization — is much less sexy: subject matter expertise,” Green wrote in Nieman Lab about the continued rise of single-subject sites.

“We simply took one topic — in fact, one sliver of one topic: not just K-12 public schools, but K-12 public schools in low-income communities undergoing change efforts — and knew more about it than anyone else in the geographic areas where we work … Over time, our expertise grew into a brand. And lately, the brand has become a full-fledged business.”

The first step, then, in moving toward a single-subject product, and perhaps the most critical, is to define a target audience and its needs by assessing the market. Defining your target audience is crucial because, “(niche) audiences are smart and it makes you work harder,” said Sukumar Ranganathan, editor of Mint.

Editors told us there are four things to consider to create a successful single-subject news site. Your topic doesn’t have to fulfill all four areas, but should fit several:

  1. Recognize your strengths and what you’re already good at
  2. Identify existing community passions
  3. Identify underserved areas or topics
  4. The commercial potential for such a topic

Recognize your strengths and what you’re already good at

These could be called core competencies — you want to build around your strengths.

If your news organization already has a strong brand, you can launch a niche site that builds off of your brand to cultivate passionate audiences based on what you’re already good at.

It wasn’t difficult for Vanity Fair to decide to build its Hollywood vertical. It took stock of what the publication was good at — coverage of Hollywood in a smart way — and decided its goal was to obsessively cover Hollywood and become so much better that it would be considered the best.

“Hollywood is so ingrained in what we do,” Vanity Fair’s digital director Hogan said. One of the reactions following the vertical’s launch was “Isn’t all of Vanity Fair a Hollywood vertical?” to which Hogan replied, “Even though people make fun of Vanity Fair Hollywood — it actually makes sense. It’s what we know we’re good at it.”

By building a Hollywood vertical, Vanity Fair was trying to make a statement to readers and advertisers that, “we’re going to focus and zero in, you can bookmark it and follow it and keep checking back every day — it’s more compelling,” said Hogan.

“This is the first of a few [content verticals] and we’re going to do this again in a couple of content areas.” Hogan said. But it’s important, he thinks that each of them fit with the pre-existing expectations for the core publication. “When we’re finished doing these vertical launches, it will be a more representative for the brand and that makes sense for the brand.”

We’re going to focus and zero in, you can bookmark it and follow it and keep checking back every day.

While many niche sites can target an interest area, they can also be used to attract audiences in a new geographic location.

That was the task for HT media, with a new set of business publications. HT Media is the publisher of a leading national daily newspaper in India, the Hindustan Times; Mint is HT Media’s business newspaper, which is now 7 years old and published in eight Indian cities. The paper was co-founded by Raju Narisetti, now senior vice president of strategy for News Corp.

“For Mint and its digital Livemint, a highly readable, authoritative business news source, trying to grow included finding influentials abroad and expanding upon its mission to be “a fair and clear-minded chronicler of the Indian dream,'” wrote business media analyst Ken Doctor in Nieman Lab.

In April 2013, Mint launched Mint Asia in Singapore targeting the large Indian expatriate business community. Mint Asia would be similar to Mint in tone, coverage and reporting — but cater to this new audience with more specialized content.

“There are 4,500 Indian-owned companies in Singapore, which is fast becoming the multinational business center for its region. Mint Asia is also aimed at those multinationals, for whom better knowledge of India, its economy, and its policies are central to their own growth plans,” writes Doctor.

Several factors made Singapore the right market for Mint. Indians make up 9 percent of Singapore’s citizens and permanent residents, making them Singapore’s third largest ethnic group after Chinese and Malays.

“Many of them are CEOs of banks, CEOs of hedge funds, investment officers at venture capital and private equity companies,” said Ranganathan. “Singapore is the financial center for this part of this world.”

Take quick and inexpensive steps to test audience demand

Identifying what you could produce and would be good at is only the first step. Another involves knowing whether people would actually want your product.

Ranganathan was initially skeptical about the Mint Asia expansion in Singapore because the country is also a highly digital market. Nearly 9 out of 10 households have broadband access and mobile phone penetration is 156 percent (most are smartphones). “I assume that everyone would be consuming a lot of their news online,” Ranganathan said.

So Ranganathan and his team met with people in Singapore and found that while they got a lot of their news online, they also liked having a physical product, especially a product that went deeper and with more business sophistication than typically found in the average general interest newspaper.

“A lot of these people are what you’d call an “involved audience’ — they’re interested because 1) they’re Indian and 2) they are invested in India, either personally or financially,” Ranganathan said. The audience, demographics and topic made sense.

HT Media then did audience research and produced a series of what they termed “like-dummies” to test the market. The dummies contained real content and were pretty close to the actual product design.

“Unless they can really see a product, people don’t know whether it works for them,” Ranganathan said. The samples were circulated among a small audience in Singapore and the group provided feedback. “That was when I became a believer,” Ranganathan said.

With the launch of Mint Asia, the editors at Mint again drew upon what they were good at — India-specific business information — then translated that to an audience in Singapore and added a print offering with in-depth reporting, analysis, and perspective. Readers didn’t want to read the same thing, but to go beyond the news to understand what was really going on in India.

“There’s a market there for high-quality analysis and reporting and writing about India and as long as you can ensure you’re delivering that value, people are willing to pay for it,” Ranganathan said. “And Singapore is a market we’ve seen a willingness to pay for a quality product. Then the newspaper continues to grow.”

Identify existing community passions

Community passions do not have to be exclusively news topics — they can be personal interest areas that people in your community are passionate about, such as personal finance or family life for example.

In other words, people’s interests often sprawl beyond what news people would see as “beats” or “news topics” and it’s important to understand the language and orientation of your readers to really serve them.

Understanding the way consumers view a topic or area of passion involves developing real empathy and understanding. This can involve listening to them, human-centered design practices, or creating reader personas — there are a lot of ways to do this. But the goal should be to understand those passions in human terms, not journalistic terms.

Some things are obvious, but others are not. For example, school coverage has multiple audiences: parents who want to read everything about that particular topic, parents with varying levels of interest, students, teachers and administrators, and taxpayers without kids. Honing in on which of those audiences you would want to most directly serve helps identify not only the subject, but also the voice.

The “built-in community” idea is similar to Mint Asia, which identified not only a topic and geographic area, business in Singapore, but a specific reader — the large Indian expat business community in the country.

In southeast Florida, Scripps’ Treasure Coast Newspapers, prompted by a transition to a pay model, reevaluated their value proposition to readers and realized that they couldn’t just take material that was once free and persuade people to suddenly pay for it. To add to the value proposition, editors decided decided to identify three “franchise” issues that they wanted to be known for and that their readers could not get anywhere else.

“We’re not trying to be everything for everyone — we never were,” says Mike Canan, who at the time was managing editor of the papers. “We were deluded into thinking so. Trying to be a little something to everybody was not only challenging with fewer resources, but also challenging in terms of brands.”

One of those three franchise areas is the Indian River Lagoon, which is three bodies of water that dominate the area economically, geographically and in terms of how people spend their free time. “We want our readers to instantly think of the lagoon and associate the feeling of love of the lagoon to us.”

We’re not trying to be everything for everyone — we never were.

The Indian River Lagoon is made up Mosquito Lagoon, Banana River, and the Indian River, on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. The tagline of the paper’s site on the lagoon is “County lines divide the Treasure Coast, but Our Indian River Lagoon unites us.”

The other two franchise topics the paper arrived at are growth and development projects and decisions that could affect the Treasure Coast (nicknamed “Shaping Our Future”) and arts, entertainment, food and a going out guide (branded “#TCPalmSocial”).

The process of selecting the franchise topics took about about six months total and consisted of intensive audience research and data analysis. They hired a research company to survey readers about what they loved about their community and their media consumption habits. After more than 800 calls, they broke down what the data meant and simultaneously formed a nine-person committee comprised of non-managers, editors, reporters, photographers, copy editors, and others.

Then, the committee received training from the Knight Digital Media Center about the market, and how to figure out what topics to choose. Their approach was not to think about what they were already doing but to think about what their community cared about and what they wanted to do more of.

Each person in the committee then interviewed 10 people in the community over coffee. They had conversations about what they do and how they lived their lives — notably, they didn’t ask readers what they thought about the paper.

Between the audience research, personal interviews by the committee, and their own news judgment, they came up with those three topics. The goal was to always have at least one piece of content for each of the franchise topics, be it a gallery, story, poll or social media engagement.

Any big editorial change is not without its challenges.

“Whatever it is, we wanted our readers know that these topics were important and you could rely on us — we are becoming the experts on these topics,” Canan said.

Any big editorial change is not without its challenges. The two primary fears from the newsroom were: 1) Are we only going to cover these franchise topics and not other newsy ones? and 2) Are we going to have to do this on top of everything else we have to do?

The answer was somewhere in the middle. The franchise topics unchained reporters to not cover everything, but instead focus on those areas and other big news of the day. The newsroom then focused on four priorities, in order: franchise issues, breaking news, investigative, and community engagement on social media.

“We have to give something up — we can’t do everything. We have go to all in at these franchise issues at a high level so we had to get a middle ground,” Canan said. “We weren’t sacrificing standards, but changing the vision of what success is. Once we established this, there was an ah-hah moment.”

Similarly, once Colorado voters approved the measure to legalize marijuana, what was once a topic that the Denver Post had covered became a community passion.

The Post had been reporting on the medical marijuana industry and the battle to legalize marijuana for more than a decade, said news director Kevin Dale.

“We have written extensively about the research on marijuana, the regulation, the wrangling in the legislature, cooking with marijuana and growing it,” said Dale.

Once the law passed, the Post started reporting more stories on the use of marijuana from all angles and traditional beats — eventually launching The Cannabist. When recreational use popped up, so did an audience, and that’s when the internal conversation at the Post began about an opportunity to shift their reporting to more like that of an alternative weekly.

“You have to be more ingrained in the topic matter and that means content like product reviews,” Dale said.

On some level, identifying passion areas in your community is not enough. If that topic is already heavily covered by others or even dominated by another publication, it may make little sense to try to build a new brand around it. That leads to another question.

Identify underserved areas or topics

This may be the most difficult of the steps required for choosing the topics for niche content verticals because it’s hard to measure. Identifying your organization’s strength or an existing community passion is more straightforward than identifying a competitive advantage.

In a city such as Washington, D.C., where the Redskins are heavily covered by television and sports talk radio, the team might be a difficult franchise topic to own. But if you can do it significantly better than others, or offer something that no one else can, that distinction in quality and approach becomes your opportunity.

The easier case is identifying a topic people care about that isn’t well covered. In this case, choosing a niche to cover may be a mix of two or all three of the key questions publishers need to resolve: your strengths, existing community passions, or an underserved topic.

In Southwest Idaho, it was an existing community passion that wasn’t covered as well as it could be. There — whether it’s skiing, mountain biking, fishing, or hunting — virtually everyone does something outdoors, Idaho State Journal managing editor Ian Fennell told me. “It’s all part of our lives here,” said Fennell. “We’re in the middle of the mountains, so it’s a really big part of living in Idaho in general, so we were thinking we had to massively improve our content.”

The Journal had always had an outdoors section, but it wasn’t planned out well and wasn’t executed well. It was “incredibly mediocre,” said Fennell.

About three years ago, the editors wanted more content, a story every day. It worked, but stories were a mixed bag — some were good, others weren’t so good. Overall, the section suffered from inconsistency in its quality and “didn’t move the needle much.”

“Outdoors was an area that was hugely popular — of all the topic areas, outdoors was the one that was begging the most,” Fennell said. “We’ve done focus groups, surveys and outdoors always came up. Our section wasn’t that great or that well respected, but outdoors is hugely popular and reader interest is there — we just had to provide the content.”

The Idaho State Journal worked with us at the American Press Institute in our content strategy program to figure out what “better” outdoors coverage meant — including more content, more engagement and interactions from readers. All of these things led the Journal to create a standalone site, Xtreme Idaho.

The site helped them reach new audiences that wouldn’t have otherwise gone to the Journal website but might go to the outdoors-focused site.

“A standalone site will brand you as the place to go — it’s better to have it as branding and to reach new audiences,” said Fennell. “It’s something that people can look at and say, “They’re better regarding this topic. They’re better regarding outdoors.’ It helps the brand more than if we told them we have more outdoors stuff on isj.com. It’s noticeable. We have a whole site. It’s not just beefing up content.”

Doing a “gap analysis” of the market can also help you discover underserved areas.

Deseret News is a media organization and newspaper published in Salt Lake City, Utah, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Deseret News went through a similarly rigorous process to launch its national edition, using a mix of self-assessment to determine its own strengths and a market demand assessment. It wanted to identify areas in which to be world-class.

The national edition was a move to “deliberately target values across all faith practices in the country,” Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media CEO Clark Gilbert told Nieman Lab’s Joseph Lichterman.

Deseret News editor Paul Edwards offered me more detail on this in an interview. “What can we be known for based on our heritage, based on the talents we’ve assembled and what people might expect from us?” Edwards said. So the paper did a comparative advantage of its own talents and abilities and what its national audience wanted.

“We used panel data to look at a broad audience of Americans,” said Edwards. “We tried to extrapolate by looking at a panel of Americans that expressed some level of belief, and within that, look at certain kinds of behaviors — this wasn’t trying to identify Catholics, Evangelicals or mainline Protestants — but to really look at behaviors and concerns like what keeps people up at night and where did they find a gap in their media consumption.”

Deseret found that the people they looked at didn’t feel like there were reliable media sources to tell them about important trends affecting families, findings about how to shore up family finances, among other things.

All of these decisions have been data-driven. We aren’t thinking that maybe gee they want this. We did research to find that people want this. The audience already exists.

It was through this “gap analysis” that they found the topics that would be potential opportunities to use Deseret News’ skills, strengths and platforms to reach a broader audience.

A combination of that exercise and other surveys led the Deseret News to focus on six areas of editorial emphasis: family, faith, excellence in education, care for the poor, financial responsibility, and values in the media.

“The biggest takeaway is that all of these decisions have been data-driven. We aren’t thinking that maybe gee they want this. We did research to find that people want this. The audience already exists,” said Edwards.

“The bulk was telephone research, some online and going deep with some people — that’s an ongoing process — Skype video recording and letting them share things about their lives, experiences, and values and will help us understand them better and write for them and finding what will resonate with them to be better contributors to society and better parents and better family.”

Some may think the Deseret model is unique. As an LDS-owned publication, it could tap into a global Mormon audience to build its national publication. That is a situation that most local publishers cannot replicate. To some extent this criticism may miss the point. The gap analysis, the audience research and the commitment to excellence are all approaches that apply to any publisher.

But just as important, it turns out many local publishers can create content appealing to non-local readers, which if viewed in a different light becomes a new business opportunity. In South Bend, Indiana, the South Bend Tribune has become a source for Notre Dame sports worldwide. The Seattle Seahawks or Green Bay Packers are topics owned by their local publishers but with national and international audiences.

The gap analysis, the audience research and the commitment to excellence are all approaches that apply to any publisher.

In 2014, the Boston Globe launched a site devoted to Catholic news called Crux.

“The audience is anybody who’s interested in the Pope (a fairly big demographic these days, in light of the fascination with Francis), the Vatican, and the Catholic Church, both here in the States and around the world,” Crux editor John Allen told the American Press Institute. “Defined that way, the audience is obviously national and international. There are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, so that’s a fairly sizeable potential market.”

At the Washington Post, owner Jeff Bezos has decided that the global audience for Washington news, rather than being irrelevant to the publication’s core advertising base, is actually an opportunity for new revenue built around advertising and data. That leads to the next point in the process.

Consider the commercial potential

The decision to launch a single-subject news site changes some of the traditional questions of a traditional mass-media product. For a single-subject news product, imagine the many revenue streams you can exploit with a more targeted focus. There is a portfolio of ways to make money with verticals.

“Subject matter expertise also seems to have a real shot at becoming self-sustaining,” Chalkbeat’s Elizabeth Green writes in Nieman Lab. “Like any single subject in the commercial sector, individual public policy issues comprise their own industries.”

If you cover a sector like finance, you might have a mix of revenue streams from ads, native or sponsored content, professionally oriented subscribers and perhaps events.

If you’re a nonprofit like Chalkbeat, your source of revenue may also come from foundations or other individuals who care deeply about a specific issue, as well as newsletter subscriptions or events.

“In our K-12 education universe, that means we don’t just have to rely on the tiny set of usual-suspect journalism supporters to give us grants or on local businesses to buy sponsorships. We have a defined audience that a defined set of foundations, donors, and sponsors want to reach — and so raising money, while always a challenge, is relatively easier,” Green writes.

The core concept is: In the world of niche verticals, a publisher fundamentally is in the deep knowledge business. What are all the ways knowledge can be monetized?

Rather than being bound by solely relying on ads, new models such as Atlantic Media’s Quartz look to sponsorships, content marketing, and events, as well as other emerging models.

“Much of Atlantic Media’s sales, marketing, analytics and financial functions can be leveraged to support the new product, minimizing what would be similar expense for a one-off start-up,” Ken Doctor writes in Nieman Lab.

In the world of niche verticals, a publisher fundamentally is in the deep knowledge business. What are all the ways knowledge can be monetized?

The Atlantic relied on market research to see what the marketplace looked like and to model and validate the opportunity before it launched Atlantic Cities in 2011, now relaunched as CityLab.

The Atlantic saw a very specific space — urban and city-related issues — that was covered mostly by B2B, think tanks, and a few small sites, but none that had “consumer sensibilities that was aimed rigorously at this audience,” said Bob Cohn, president and chief operating officer of The Atlantic.

While they were excited editorially, market research allowed them to see and validate the opportunity, then model it with a business analysis to see if there was a real potential for growth in traffic.

In deciding your niche, you’ll have to decide when a niche is too narrow to justify the investment and command revenue.

When I posed this question to people working in niche verticals, I heard differing opinions about scale.

There’s “no such thing as too small if you can do it on a marginal cost basis and the finances make sense,” said Mint’s Ranganathan.

“A niche is too small when you don’t have an ad base to support it,” said Denver Post’s Dale.

Scott Havens had a view somewhere in between these: “For scale, bigger is better as long as you’re reaching the right audience.”

While those answers all appear to be offering different opinions, they’re all based on the same measurement of success — the potential audience and the potential market support.

And that measure of success is different than the old model for many newspapers. The move toward niche audiences arises from the unbundling the newspaper into target audiences, target content areas and target revenue sources.

“Metro newspapers find themselves in a very challenging position. They have tried to do all things for all people and the result is that they’re no longer a superb vehicle for advertisers,” Edwards of Deseret News said. “That’s the disconnect. There are much more efficient ways for a lot of advertisers to get eyeballs on specific audiences.”

The concept of the niche vertical joins that new trend, and tries to exploit it, rather than fight against it.

“I do think they see a landscape emerge, somewhat spontaneously, where metro dailies look deep within themselves and identify some core strengths that resonate with their local audience and some national or international audience,” Edwards explained. “We’re going to see specialization around areas of content and coverage and the potential for collaboration and trade of content.”

Metro newspapers … have tried to do all things for all people and the result is that they’re no longer a superb vehicle for advertisers.

Naturally, the audience will be smaller, which will be a challenge, but presumably, the audience will also be more targeted and more loyal because you are serving a specific group of people a specific solution.

In Asia, Mint had a specific built-in audience for circulation and ads market with its Indian expat community in Singapore. In Denver, the Post also had a very specific built-in audience interested in the ongoing developments around marijuana.

In Salt Lake, the strategy involved identifying the core passions of people in the community, whether they were Mormon or not, and imagining how many similarly concerned people there might be worldwide. In other words, the process requires thinking carefully thinking about your organization’s history, legacy and then reinventing that legacy, said Edwards.
“Can dinosaurs survive into the next age?” asked Edwards, using an analogy his former CEO Clark Gilbert is fond of. “The crocodile has — it’s smaller, has defined its niche, adapted to its space and has survived very well,” said Edwards. “We need to think in those kind of evolutionary terms. What has been a big metro newspaper — how will it adapt well under new conditions? There’s a need to think strategically.”

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

Featured topics

Go deeper on…

Dive deep on everything we produce about these key topics.

Strategy Studies

The best practices for innovation within news organizations

This Strategy Study presents examples and insights about journalism innovation, offering actionable advice and methods to move your journalism and business forward.