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How to build audiences with single-subject news products

single-subject-newsAs audiences gain more choices for news, they are increasingly turning to specialized sources. That represents a challenge to general-interest publishers but also creates an opportunity to reach new audiences by being the best source on a particular topic.

Topic, not demographics or habits, is now the biggest factor determining where people turn for news. Convenience also matters. These are among the most important findings from the Personal News Cycle research API has conducted along with our partners AP-NORC in our ongoing collaboration called the Media Insight Project.

Readers can now find global, dispersed communities for their passions, which creates new markets for news and media organizations to cover these narrow interests and passions in depth. By creating deep communities around topics that extend beyond geography, publishers can find new business opportunities.

There are many reasons a publisher would want to create a single-subject news site. Among them, single-subject sites can:

  • Attract a new audience and deepen the loyalty of an existing audience
  • Expand upon your existing strengths in a cost-effective way
  • Build a new, innovative product under your company’s brand, but with the flexibility of an independent sub-brand

The single-subject strategy can work well even for relatively small or local publishers. Developing a single-subject news product isn’t just for established brands with endless editorial, technical and sales resources. In this study we specifically sought examples of a wide range of news organizations — from big to small, newspapers and magazines, and examples from around the world.

By creating deep communities around topics that extend beyond geography, publishers can find new business opportunities.

We have identified key trends and ways to scale a new product so it’s less risky, with less up front resources, which can be adjusted and work for any audience or publisher.

This paper is part of API’s Strategy Studies series. While similar to case studies, API’s Strategy Studies draw on multiple cases in order to arrive at more durable conclusions. They also focus on how the examples can be used for others to develop their own products.

Throughout my interviews, I found that the publications that launched successful single-subject news sites shared three characteristics. They identified a topic by assessing what they were good at covering, what their community was passionate about, or what topics were underserved. They created content to serve their audience as fully as possible on that topic, rather than just “covering news” in a conventional sense. And they all nurtured the new brand, including a marketing plan that enabled it to grow and expand.

Accordingly, this paper is organized into three sections and can be read in full or you can jump to a section that most addresses your needs:

  1. How to choose a subject
  2. How to create and execute a content strategy
  3. How to prepare for expansion and growth

The lessons in this report are distilled from interviews with top editors and strategists from the following organizations: USA Today, Denver Post, Deseret News, The Idaho State Journal, the Treasure Coast newspapers, The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, as well as Mint and Mint Asia in India. This report highlights specific tactics and strategies that have worked for them and can work for your news organization as well.

A worksheet is included at the end to help build a niche content strategy that fits your organization’s goals.

How to choose a topic

“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.”

How to form your content strategy

After the first step in building a niche vertical of identifying the topic, which involves assessing your audience, your brand, your capacity and the potential business for the topic, the second involves making the right steps to execute a superb product.

Here, according to those steeped in the process of niche verticals, there are three elements:

  • Developing a content strategy tailored for your audience
  • Identifying what staffing resources you need to execute that product
  • Distributing the content, especially via mobile

Your content strategy will include determining what content your staff will produce, where it will come from, how much of it will be original content versus repurposed or curated from other sources — all of which will flow from your staffing decisions.

In launching a single-subject product called CityLab, for instance, The Atlantic benefited from the growing set of digital skills gained from running TheAtlantic.com.

“We were gaining confidence in how to write for the web, how to hire for the web, how to build traffic, how to sell ads — everything we learned in scaling TheAtlantic.com was very important in our confidence to launch CityLab,” said The Atlantic’s Bob Cohn.

At the Idaho State Journal, a relatively small newsroom, developing a concept for the product was inevitably linked to identifying how to structure resources to put into it. “Success for us meant a couple of things: having the right champion in charge of it and having good content that pushes the needle in terms of traffic,” said Idaho State Journal’s Ian Fennell.

Create content tailored for your audience

At TCPalm.com and the Treasure Coast newspapers, after the publications selected their three franchise topics, the newsroom teams had to figure out within each franchise topic area what audience groups they wanted to target, and “everybody” was the wrong answer. To help them stay focused, they developed two personas for each topic.

The idea of “personas” here is borrowed from marketing and user experience design. In both fields, personas represent fictitious customers of your brand or users of your product. They are usually derived from blending in-depth interviews or research of many customers into representative types of persons.

Often quite detailed in their personal characteristics, personas help people understand the goals, desires, and motivations of those potential users and to help guide decisions about how they may interact and use your product. They put a human face on otherwise abstract data about readers.

At TCPalm, each of the three franchise topics had two personas, a primary and secondary. The personas were exhaustive. They captured standard demographic information, but also behavior patterns, hobbies, attitudes, interests, as well as preferred devices and platforms.

The personas continuously help both editors and writers in assigning coverage and and even writing stories or developing graphics and data journalism. In covering “Our Indian River Lagoon,” an editor may refer to a persona of an older gentleman whose kids and grandkids visit him and go kayaking or fishing. Instead of just assigning a story about the health of the lagoon, the persona may lead the writer to highlight kid clinics on the lagoon or clean-up events for the family. The coverage becomes much more targeted.

“The goal of the franchise topics is to give very clear, precise direction, with more focus from the personas and what they’re after,” said Canan. “The personas are not meant to be exclusionary. If we see three things on an agenda, we’ll focus on what takes precedence in importance to our readers.”

Having personas can also help in deciding when to cover or not cover a topic or event as well. For example, for a big music festival in the community — before the personas were developed, a lot of resources were invested in coverage. However, the audience was not in their newly defined persona targets. The audience wasn’t as active or involved, were older, and didn’t fall within the 24-54 age range.

The personas are not meant to be exclusionary.

“It took a lot of work to form personas — several meetings, good discussions,” said Canan. They used data from the research firm they hired, data from circulation, data from their digital subscription and process, and general data from social media. Then, they sat down and debated it, taking the bigger picture of the franchises and honed it down to very specific profiles.

“When reporters and editors are reporting and assigning, they know this person. We know Gwen. She’s one of our friends’ soccer moms,” said Canan. “We created flyers with a picture, name, and info. We’ve emailed them out. Then we rolled it out.”

For some franchises, such as the outdoors at the Idaho State Journal, the personas were as simple as imagining the different outdoor sports. “We knew we needed a gun guy,” Fennell tells me about Idaho State Journal’s XTreme Idaho.

But imagining “outdoors” as a series of discrete activities, fishing or hunting very different than mountain biking or cross country skiing, made the concept far different than the traditional notion of the vague “outdoors” section of the newspaper. One of the main goals for XTreme Idaho was to garner the respect of the passionate community interested in outdoors and the various activities that existed within that realm.

“It’s tough with outdoors — a lot of people are interested, but they’re not the greatest writers. So, we had to find a good combination of someone who was knowledgeable, respected when talking about it, and can be articulate and write a decent column.”

Determining the content strategy was ‘the biggest decision point that we made.’

Nothing like the standalone site existed before, said Fennell.

“If I wanted to go hunting in Idaho, where would I have gone?”

Not all of this has to be decided at the onset either.

“When we first thought of Mint Asia, we just thought of using Mint content without repurposing and we had no idea of producing original content,” Mint Asia’s Ranganathan said. “But as we met with more people, we thought that the product configuration had to change.”

At Mint Asia, 70 percent of the content is repurposed content from Mint, with about 30 percent original content for the Singapore audience — with all marginal costs. In India, Mint is about 150 people and a lot contribute to Mint Asia, Ranganathan said. There is no dedicated editorial staff except sales staff. Mint Asia serves as its own brand to increase the brand franchise of Mint.

Determining the content strategy was “the biggest decision point that we made,” Ranganathan said.

Use existing staff and resources to lower your initial investment

After you’ve identified an audience and made sure your vertical’s goal aligns with your overall publication’s mission, you need to determine the threshold for the appropriate investment. You have to identify your initial investment by determining who will write, edit, build, and sell your product.

Having a primary team that’s either pulled from your existing team or hired to work with your existing team will allow you to apply the existing knowledge and skills of your organization. This allows you to start with small, less resource-intensive experiments to test the market of the topic and minimize risk.

“It’s not just about money, but what type of people,” Scott Havens, now senior vice president of digital at Time Inc., explained about the creation of Quartz when he was president of The Atlantic.

“Will there be a dedicated editorial team and a shared sales and tech team? Will you get the same innovation and dedication from a shared team? Can you afford not to do it that way? How hard and fast do you go at the opportunity? Ambitions outstrip resources.”

There are different ways to staff a new vertical, publishers told me:

  • You can set up a new dedicated team
  • Use existing staff
  • Do a mix of both and have a core team with a bit of overlap from your existing staff.

From my conversations with the various publications, having a small, dedicated team that overlaps with your staff allows a publication to have a core group focused on growing the project, take advantage of marginal costs by not hiring a completely new team, and test and experiment with new ideas with a smaller investment at a lower cost.

Start with small, less resource-intensive experiments to test the market of the topic and minimize risk.

“Niche product creation that builds on existing company infrastructure, knowledge and marketplace learnings is the cost-effective way to go,” Ken Doctor has written at Nieman Lab. “[Each company] adapted what they learned to these new launches. This is a new power of incumbency. It’s not the ownership of a printing press, as it was for newspaper publishers in the old days.”

Assembling a closely integrated and very collaborative staff is beneficial in multiple ways, but most importantly, it can foster innovation within your newsroom.

USA Today’s For The Win was set up as a “very distinctive experience from USA Today Sports, so there’s autonomy and a lot of rein for creativity,” said Jamie Mottram, director of content development.

For The Win has a staff up to eight or nine editors and writers and has recently begun producing video content as well, though that’s a shared staff. The staff is closely integrated with the USA Today Sports team with a lot of crossover and the FTW editor reports to the USA Today Sports editor. The two teams share a newsroom and while the smaller FTW staff focuses on FTW, they contribute to both sections and there’s a lot of collaboration.

“We want it to be very closely integrated even if the end product is different,” said Mottram. Having a staff that focuses on the viral moments also allows the reporters to chase another story.

The Cannabist at the Denver Post operates in a similar fashion. There are two full-time employees dedicated to content and production, while others on staff contribute.

Assembling a closely integrated and very collaborative staff … can foster innovation within your newsroom.

Metro has a reporter who spends more than half his time on marijuana enterprise; reporters on crime, health, justice, politics all write stories on the topic — either breaking or enterprise. The business staff has a banking specialist who follows that issue as well people who cover tourism and industry as they cross over into marijuana coverage. And features has reporters who have touched on entertainment and cultural issues, news director Dale said. The rest of the digital team also helps out and run the social accounts.

There’s a similar structure at New York Magazine’s verticals: Daily Intelligencer, Vulture, The Cut, Grub Street, and newly launched Science of Us.

There were two full-time staffers when New York launched the site. The staff now numbers eight. People occasionally write in other sites but they run as separate entities, said Ben Williams, editorial director at New York Magazine. Vulture and the Cut each have their own editorial director, while Daily Intel and Grub Street do not and the staff for each vertical are about half the size. The staff on ad sales have dedicated verticals.

On the day to day level, there’s a lot of autonomy at each of New York’s verticals. Bigger picture editorial projects generally involve management, but the staffing and editing structure falls under one of the blogs.

At Atlantic Media, investment across products varies widely. The level of investment ranged from Atlantic’s Cities vertical, whose staff includes about 7 to 8 full-time staff and a pool of money for freelance — to Quartz, which was set up as a standalone and mapped as a multimillion investment with 40 or so employees.

There’s no one model for how they build out verticals, Atlantic publisher Cohn said. “Many times we take on new subject matter areas by adding a channel to TheAtlantic.com. We’ve done that a half dozen times over the last five years, adding Entertainment, Education, Tech, Sexes, Health, National to our initial core of Politics, Business, Global. In one case, we added a channel, China, let it run for about a year, and then decided to roll it into Global.”

The Atlantic has also launched verticals “outside the mothership,” Cohn said, particularly when the topic does not build naturally off the legacy brand. “That’s CityLab. We believed it had its own core audience and a separate mission, sensibility, and advertising base, so it went out on its own. Likewise Quartz, which is outside The Atlantic family but part of Atlantic Media. So there are different models, and the decision for how to act is driven by circumstances, business opportunities, editorial fit, etc.”

Every vertical requires “a champion,” someone who is responsible for and takes personal ownership for each site.

Deseret News similarly employs a dedicated enterprise team for its national edition. “We don’t want them [the enterprise team] caught up in the local newsroom buzz, which has its own focus,” Edwards said.

Stories on the national edition can appear on the local front page the next day, but the local editor has access to all of the national stories and makes the decision. Since the content lives on the same CMS, most stories written by the enterprise team are pushed to both the local and national sites.

Regardless of how teams are set up, those involved agreed that every vertical requires “a champion,” someone who is responsible for and takes personal ownership for each site.

“Our best sites have the best champion who update them, care of them,” said Fennell of the Idaho State Journal. “Papers have a bad habit of doing something new and giving it to someone who’s maxed out — the champion needs the ability and time to focus on it.”

The overarching importance of mobile in your delivery strategy

Across almost all the publications studied, having a product that was accessible on tablets and smartphones was a main priority.

The Denver Post’s The Cannabist and its sister site, Reverb, which focuses on music, both use WordPress.

“WordPress meant we could have a mobile-first product and we could build it as a fully responsive site — we wanted to break outside of our normal template,” Dale said.

While it operates on a different CMS than the rest of the Post, the site is not separate in any other way. There’s a different copy workflow, but everything else is the same. “There’s a differentiated brand and voice and we could have done it with our native [CMS] but it would be much harder,” Dale said.

I heard the same thing from Jamie Mottram at For The Win. “Half of our traffic is happening on phones — not mobile, which is about three-quarters [and includes tablets],” Mottram said. “Every day is over 40 percent on phone; on the weekend, it’s over 60 percent.”

Like Cannabist and Reverb in Denver, USA Today’s FTW went with a responsive site rather than having a native app in addition to a mobile-friendly website.

“We just wanted one consistent site and one experience that worked no matter what you were using — it was an obvious decision to make, but not necessarily what everyone does,” Mottram said. The FTW team built the site, focusing on the mobile experience first, then moved out to work on the desktop experience instead of the other way around.

It’s unusual, as Mottram said, and may seem a luxury to start with mobile. That choice was possible because USA Today decided to make FTW a separate site. But in digital phase in which the majority of traffic and time will be mobile, it may make increasing sense.

We just wanted one consistent site and one experience that worked no matter what you were using

“Mobile consumption within our first 100 days surprised us, so I asked everyone involved to use the site every day on their phones and provide at least three ways to make it better every day,” Mottram said. He stole the idea, he said, from Mark Zuckerberg.

“The other big obstacle that you run into is — and hopefully you’re on top of — is the changing of consumption patterns. Generally speaking they don’t come in overnight. Social media as a driver of traffic was not around in 2009 and definitely was not significant. Everyone was talking about SEO and third-party links. All of a sudden Facebook and Twitter are top referrers. LinkedIn now too,” says Havens. “These shifts you always see coming but how you get there is always a change.”

TCPalm also used its personas to identify not just what content its readers wanted but how and when they wanted it. In other words, the personas affected both the content type and the publishing and delivery time. Personas made it easier to imagine their audience’s mobile behavior.

For example, editors found that their TCPalm “social crowd” loved lists, so they created more lists out of their existing content. The personas also taught them not to just post things in the morning. Engagement was highest between 6 and 8 p.m., so they’ve changed their newsroom structure to have people dedicated to those evening hours. Now, they’re purposefully placing stories stories at that time — not just in the morning when the stories were ready, as they previously did.

Once these first steps are done — the content, the audience, the product and the distribution — the work is not. Next comes the critical element of growth.

How to plan for expansion and growth

What you’re ultimately doing with a single-subject news site — to go back to the very beginning — is creating obsessives and superfans.

“Cultivating many small audiences of superfans in different subject areas isn’t exactly a new business model,” writes Ann Friedman in the Columbia Journalism Review. So in expanding your niche site, consider the superfans of your brand.

“Brands are elastic,” said the Atlantic’s Bob Cohn.

In growing TheAtlantic.com, “we spent a lot of thinking whether The Atlantic can do this? Can we really do an entertainment or tech channel or food channel?” Cohn said. “And the truth is that — the brand is about how ideas are changing everything in our lives and the search for big ideas and where ideas matter and you can go anywhere with that. It’s very elastic and readers will go with you.”

While events might be something that isn’t in the immediate future, having the content and reputation can set you up to build a successful events business. The Atlantic’s urban issues-focused CityLab extended its brand to create a conference series with 40 mayors from around the globe and 300 people who are experts in city and urban issues. The conference is also mostly underwritten by sponsors and free for attendees and they’re planning the next one overseas in 2015.

Cultivating many small audiences of superfans in different subject areas isn’t exactly a new business model.

Similarly to The Atlantic’s brand, The Verge, Vox Media’s technology site, has expanded its mission to encapsulate more than just tech and gadgets. “The purview of The Verge isn’t so much ‘technology’ as it is ‘the future,'” writes Lockhart Steele, editorial director at Vox Media. And that purview “helps explain the filter The Verge will use to expand its coverage into areas like entertainment and automotive. The risk is that in doing so, The Verge loses touch with the core of what makes it so great — and its fans so passionate about it … But it’s a risk worth remembering and revisiting as The Verge grows.”

A niche site can not only change the reader relationship but also the advertiser relationship.

Starting XtremeIdaho opened the Idaho State Journal to new advertisers and relationships with business that were related to the outdoors — companies who did not advertise with the Journal before were advertising with them now to reach this new audience.

When you have a successful niche news site, your expertise becomes your brand and that in turn will determine your growth potential. Expansion can mean expanding your brand to other revenue generating opportunities.

Expanding your successful single-subject news site can go one of a few ways:

  • Expand your core audience
  • Pivot one step at a time
  • Go from a topic vertical to an audience “horizontal”

In each of these examples, knowing your core audience is essential. Advertisers are now buying audiences, not publications, so it’s worth paying attention to and knowing your audience to create superfans.

Identify ‘concentric circles’ to expand your core audience

Before launching Atlantic Cities, now CityLab, there was a lot of internal discussion about whether Cities should be a channel on The Atlantic’s website or its own website.

“We thought about the time to really focus on it as a single topic and to attract an audience that was die-hard for this subject and to attract advertisers, we needed an identity that wasn’t overshadowed by The Atlantic,” said The Atlantic’s Cohn.

While it could have easily been a section on the main Atlantic site, having its own site helped it build an identity, brand, and most importantly, a core audience.

Now, the site gets about 2.2 million uniques with aims to double that to 4 million in 2015. And it plans on doing that by expanding its core audience.

“We know who the audience is — people building the city of the future like infrastructure experts, politicians, city managers, people who make their day to day living thinking about urban issues,” said Cohn.

“Then there’s the rest of us who live in cities and are interested in consuming news, trends, and stats about that,” said Cohn. “What we’ve done this year is expand that audience’s ‘outer ring’ meaning more coverage for consumers to supplement core coverage for the person who makes his/her living thinking about urban issues.”

They’ve created a new section called “Navigator,” the modern urbanist’s guide to life, says the tagline. The section is aimed at the next concentric circle of audience, said Cohn, and it has a service journalism focus with pieces like “predict your own Thanksgiving-snowstorm travel misery” and “a guide to legal loitering.”

“It’s a relatively small site, but a site that really knows who it is and who it’s appealing to and what it’s for,” said Cohn.

Expand like a king, not a queen

In chess, a king can move in any direction — horizontally, vertically, or diagonally — but only one square. Expanding a successful news product works the same way — you have many options for where to move next, but you can’t move too far away from where you started.

If your news product could move one step, or pivot, what would that be? There are a couple ways to apply this idea:

  • Identify your unique tone or approach, and apply it to other topics, or
  • Stick to the same topic, but apply a different tone

In other words, define all the filters through which you choose context or audience, and move one square.

Applying the same unique tone or approach to other topics is what News Deeply is doing. News Deeply is the publisher of Syria Deeply, a single-subject site focusing on stories and commentary about the war in Syria that combines journalism and technology to better cover a complex, ongoing story. News Deeply has applied that signature deep-dive approach to other topics such as Ebola Deeply, with others topics such as the Arctic or Myanmar planned.

Following Mint Asia, which has a readership of around 5,000 now, Mint is considering launches in Malaysia and a few others, Sukumar Ranganathan, editor of Mint, said.

Sticking to the same topic but applying a different tone may look like what Al Jazeera is doing with AJ+, its digital news venture that adapts Al Jazeera’s “factual, fair and even-handed coverage” to a different audience — Millennials and others who get their information from the internet.

To offer a counter example, say you founded OpenCanada, a single-subject news site which covers foreign policy and Canada. A pivot means you can apply your foreign policy lens to another country or place, maybe OpenVietnam. Or you can apply your Canada expertise to another topic, like TechCanada. You wouldn’t expand to USA Agriculture. Move like the king, not the queen and expand to an adjacent space.

Start with a topic vertical, then pivot to an audience “horizontal’

When ESPN and ABC News lured Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight away from the New York Times, it wasn’t just because they wanted the statistician’s ability to predict national elections. In an interview with Erik Wemple, Nate Silver explained that FiveThirtyEight draws a great deal of men between the ages of 18 and 45.

“It’s a sports demographic more than it’s a politics demographic,” said Silver, noting that the mindset is not so much that FiveThirtyEight will attack a topical “vertical” but rather an audience “horizontal.”

A product’s brand can then become a proxy for its target audience’s worldview. An autonomous brand colors the worldview of an audience, from the unique voice and types of stories to metabolism of how many stories to read.

Another way to think about an “audience horizontal” is that you’re building a community.

“You must build a community,” Ranganathan said. “[It wasn’t] something we started out doing, but now [Mint Asia] does its own social media, events, partnerships.”

When I contacted Jamie Mottram of USA Today’s For The Win, he said he thought of FTW as a horizontal.

“This is not really a vertical — it could not be more horizontal and broadly appealing,” said Mottram. “Aside from the audience skewing young, we haven’t seen a typical user. It’s more female and younger than a typical sports site. It’s very broad. It’s not really targeted at one demo or another.”

In other words, the brand is not necessarily about sports, but the way in which you approach and the tone in which you’re covering the sport. In the long term, FTW may go more vertical with Football FTW or Washington DC FTW for example, Mottram said. The idea is similar to the adjacent pivot we discussed earlier.

“The subject matter and approach is not all that different from the Washington Post’s DC sports blog. The only difference really is that we’re not focused on it so we’re not covering it at a similar volume — but that’s one way in which it can grow,” Mottram said, identifying a possible competitive advantage for FTW. “Extension from a very horizontal broad brand into every sport, every team — anything that makes sense for audiences or advertisers.”

“The scale of a niche business is “niching’ the niche,” said Justin Smith, former president of Atlantic Media, in an interview for the Riptide project. “It’s not getting bigger. We’re burrowing deeper into different micro segments of influentials to get more data and more information and more content for them.”

Worksheet: Make your plan

The American Press Institute developed this worksheet as a guide to getting you started with identifying a topic and building a single-subject news site.

Before starting, be sure you’ve read this Strategy Study.

Consider sitting down with a few creative collaborators from across your organization to tackle these questions together.

Download the worksheet here.

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