31-3.3 Finding a journalistic niche to survive in

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

So, I knew there would be at least one day in this idiotic project of mine when it would be really hard to get it done.

I wasn’t expecting it to be day three.

For various reasons – that pretty much come down to a tube strike – I’ve just delivered a full day’s training for a publisher client of eConsultancy, and then gone on to do two and a half hours with one cohort of students at City University. That, gentle reader, is one long and cognitively intense day.

So, I’m sat on a train rattling its way back to the coast, sat just across from a grumpy man watching video on his iPad, and trying to see if I can think of anything coherent to say this evening. Here’s one thing:

I love niche journalists.

Loving the niche reporter

There’s something in me that loves working with really good journalists who have drilled down into a reporting specialisation and can ride the wave of their readers’ enthusiasm for a subject. It doesn’t matter how dull some of these subjects might seem at first glance; if you really roll up your neuro-sleeves and get stuck in, you can find what’s fascinating and exciting in any subject at all – and that’s an incredibly valuable skill to have right now.

All of us who are connected to this here internet thing have one thing in common: we’re suffering from information overload. There’s a reflexive viewpoint that suggests that things would be better if we went back to just having a few selective gatekeepers publish for us, but that very clearly isn’t going to happen. Genies have an almost pathological aversion to going back into the bottle, whatever fairy-tales tell you. The there’s the Shirky position of “we need better filters”. But I distrust constant algorithmic filtering of what I see – filter bubble ahoy! – and rather enjoy the idiosyncrasies of good old human selection.

Attention crisis journalism

The common response of people seems to be flight into speciality. When presented with overwhelming levels of information, you look for tools or processes to just narrow down to the subjects that are most important to you. For example: how many national or international news stories did you really car about today? The only one that’s actively crossed my radar (on an admittedly busy day) has been the developing situation in the Ukraine, that tickles away in the back of my brain, making me feel nervous that, if we’re not very careful this could turn into something bigger and nastier than we expected.

How many stories in the worlds of journalism, publishing and tech have a paid attention to? I’ve read about a dozen or so, and saved a similar number into my “read later” apps of choice.

The glut of national news

Here’s the thing: I think the news business is the wrong way around. I think we have way too many people producing the general news and opinion that most people have only a snacking interest in, and way too few working in the real niches of information and interest that people have an almost unlimited appetite for. The disruption we’re going through right now is that imbalance of supply and demand starting to work its way through the system.

National newspapers are getting ever more desperate in their search for sustainable business models now the bundling effect of the printed package has gone, while the under-supply in the niche sector has largely, in the consumer space at least, been met by the rise of the enthusiast blogger in the space. This is amateur in the true sense of the word – someone who does it for love, not money.

This is why consumer mags are having such a torrid time transitioning to the web – why pay to read slightly distant journalists writing about your passion, when you can read the words of passionate participants for free? I suspect the collapse of the consumer magazine will happen sector by sector – how many computer games mags are left on the shelf? – and will lead to the destruction of many well-know brands, simply because the publishers have left it too late to start answering the question of their role in this changed world.

The new consumer publishing ecosystem

But that’s OK – as we’ve seen in the gaming sector, new professional entities hiring journalists have emerged, who explicitly exist in that diverse ecosystem of amateur and professional. They interact with – and recruit from – the passionate bloggers. That trend will only accelerate.

Right now, it feels like a great time to be a niche journalist – because as our existing institutions crumble, we can seen new ones rising. I’d feel a lot more uneasy if I was committed to generalist reporting – because we’re not seeing similar new institutions launch in that space.

Learn to love the niche, my friends. It’s where the hot publishing actions is in the attention crisis age.

This is the third in a series of one-a-day substantive posts I’m going to try to write through March.

31-3-14B2Bconsumer magazinesJournalismniche contentniche sitespublishing strategyspecialist magazinesspecialist media

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.