Niche Publishing: Your Content Strategy Can’t Stay Still

The world of niche publishing may not be as focused on the almighty pageview or banner ad as its larger cousin, but that's definitely no reason not to evolve. And sometimes, the legacy could be holding you back.

Let’s get the chaser out of the way first.

As you might have read on this site about five months ago, GigaOm crashed and burned in a fairly dramatic way. The tech site was sold for parts, its staff was hired away by other publications, and the website went quiet for months. Last week, GigaOm came back online under new ownership.

Also making a comeback is GigaOm‘s former conference business, Structure. The conference, which was cancelled less than a week before it was to open in March, is back in business as a brand-new company. That’s right, phoenix, rise out of those ashes.

Now, with the positive news out of the way, onto some more sobering stuff.

So Long, AJR

In the past year or so, I’ve seen a lot of noble experiments that aimed for a broad audience fall by the wayside—among them the mobile-first news app Circa; “Project Thunderdome,” a news-syndication platform by Digital First Media; and AOL’s excellent tech-media offerings Joystiq and TUAW, which disappeared earlier this year as AOL merged with Verizon.

But perhaps the saddest bit of news of this nature was last week’s announcement that the American Journalism Review, which survived for 38 long years mostly with the backing of the University of Maryland, would close up shop. The school took numerous steps to keep the publication afloat—most notably, it dropped the print edition about two years ago—but in the end, it wasn’t enough.

“Over many decades, American Journalism Review has been an incredible value both to the college and to American journalists,” Merrill College Dean Lucy Dalglish said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we are unable to provide the resources needed to keep AJR the vibrant, innovative online publication it deserves to be.”

A publication that exists essentially to highlight the news industry’s struggles itself got shut down. For fans of apt metaphors, the glove doesn’t fit much better than this.

Now, to be fair, AJR had some challenges that many publications do not. It started as an independent print publication, only to get picked up by the University of Maryland in 1987. From there, it spent a number of years being backed by the university’s foundation, only for ownership to be moved over to UMD’s journalism school a couple of years ago, which used the publication as a classroom tool. Even over 38 years, that’s a lot of transition. And with staff leaving, it quickly became difficult to continue publishing.

Niche Publishing Considerations

My colleague Katie Bascuas has noted that the trend toward niche publications is, on balance, positive for associations. Now don’t get me wrong; I agree. But AJR‘s demise shows that going niche raises important questions in the age of online media. A few examples:

The value proposition. AJR, for all its strengths and its history, was a publication focused on media commentary in a world where media commentary is increasingly a commodity. Other publications in this space, such as Poynter Mediawire, Harvard’s Nieman Lab, and the blog of the semi-retired Jim Romenesko, have been able to quickly adapt to the needs of more tech-savvy journalists. And sites such as Mediaite have done well mixing political commentary with media criticism. In this context, AJR‘s strengths even as an educational tool would only have remained with further reinvention, and that would have required resources. At some point, you have to ask whether you’re better off with a faster horse that can do more things—no matter how great the legacy you’re leaving behind.

The business model. AJR‘s university ties in some ways shielded it from the more dire challenges facing the industry, but in the end, even that wasn’t enough to stop those concerns from cropping up. If anything, that protection may have prevented closer analysis of the publication’s business model, something every niche publisher has to understand deeply. Is it a loss leader—say, a way to get donors in the door? Does it exist to be a voice in the industry—is it about leading the conversation? And is there a need to put a heavy focus on the advertising dollars to keep the publication alive? Without understanding the answers to these questions, publishers are building on shaky ground.

The pacing. Being a journalist, I read a lot of media publications, and I have to admit that in recent months, the one I’ve found the most appealing is extremely simple in format but strategically well organized. The American Press Institute’s Need to Know newsletter doesn’t pretend to be much more than it is—a newsletter written with a voice. API doesn’t throw a ton of resources at the newsletter, but it’s designed to work effectively within those limitations. Sometimes, it’s not about how much you say but how effectively you convey what you can say.

When associations were just focused on magazines, all these answers came along more easily—publish every month or two, write stories that offer important context, monetize it with advertising, and turn it into a sustainable source of nondues revenue.

But just because niche content still has value online doesn’t mean older niche strategies still apply. Ultimately, we have to be willing to adapt faster, to try new content tricks.

If publishing on Medium is a viable strategy for your organization, publish on Medium. If you don’t have the resources to keep up with the pace of the social web, fix the balance and try a newsletter instead.

And if your legacy is holding back your potential, don’t be afraid to admit it.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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