The Rise of Niche Journalism

It’s no secret that capital-J journalism is in the midst of an identity crisis. With traditional news organizations still grappling with the sweeping changes wrought by the Internet, a handful of prestigious journalists have recently jumped their respective Old Media ships in favor of smaller ventures. Perhaps most notable is former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, who joined The Marshall Project earlier this year, an online startup devoted to covering a single topic: the criminal justice system.

Targeting niche audiences on the Internet is nothing new. Indie publishers from bloggers to YouTubers have been leveraging the power in this approach for years. But it’s a strategy that stands in stark contrast to conventional business logic.

In his 2007 TED talk, web guru Seth Godin explains how the traditional marketing paradigm is built on catering to the status quo.

“What marketers used to do is make average products for average people — that’s what mass marketing is — smooth out the edges, go for the center, that’s the big market.”

It’s no surprise that you see this behavior in almost every large news organization today: the Times, the Journal, the Post… the list goes on. The strategy of these titans has always been creating a product aimed at the general public. Now, many of the regional and local papers who emulated this model are facing a bleak outlook.

Godin warns that aiming for the status quo becomes a treacherous strategy in an age of digitally empowered consumers with unlimited choice.

But despite the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing over the Death of Journalism, some writers have managed to find a silver lining in the Cloud. Among them is New Yorker columnist John Cassidy, who outlines the potential benefits of the platform shaking the industry in his article about Keller’s new venture.

“The Internet, while it undercuts the traditional media model, opens up interesting new possibilities. An explosion of information from official and unofficial sources has provided more raw material for reporters and commentators, especially in specialist areas such as finance, technology, and the law. And part of what the Internet takes away in advertising revenues it gives back in lower production costs, new formats for telling stories, an expanded potential audience, and alternative sources of funding.”

Cassidy then goes on to explain the power of a targeted, issue-based approach like the one Keller is leveraging with The Marshall Project.

“One of the paradoxes of the Internet is that, although it rewards celebrity stories and videos of kittens playing with yarn, it also rewards sites that go narrow and deep. The reason is technological. While there aren’t as many people interested in the details of N.S.A. surveillance or prison conditions as there are people interested in sports or pop singers, the Internet allows them all to gather in one place. And, when they do, the readership can be a substantial and influential one.”

The web is overflowing with communities and forums filled with superfans who are deeply passionate about every subject one can imagine. The Japanese call these people Otaku. They are the ones who wait in line for hours on the eve of a gadget launch or buy the $200 collector’s edition of a new album or engage in heated debates about the perfect recipe for apple pie. The reality is, everyone’s an Otaku about something.

The key to success in modern media will be tapping into these passionate niche audiences and catering directly to them. By building an audience of superfans who believe in your product, you’ll have far more marketing power in their word of mouth support than you could possibly find in any mass marketing campaign.

As traditional media organizations continue to slash budgets, funding for in-depth enterprise stories is often the first to go. Niche journalism ventures like The Marshall Project offer an opportunity to breathe new life into deep, meaningful reporting on the web.

“People refer to what’s going on in journalism as Creative Destruction,” says Keller in an interview with NPR, “Everybody’s experimenting, and it’s kind of fun to be in on the experimentation.”