Seizing opportunities in niche journalism

When I read former washingtonpost.com executive editor Jim Brady’s Q and A on the Columbia Journalism Review site over the weekend, I kept nodding my head, over and over. He was making quite a name for himself as a leader in online journalism as I was making the transition from print to the Web in the middle of the decade. In my former online newsroom, as in his, quite a buzz was building over the possibilities. I was excited to be part of the cutting edge of news innovation. And then . . .

“But a lot of other organizations were starting to hire people, more videographers, more database developers, and were putting more emphasis on getting the journalists who were at the newspaper doing stuff for the Web site. I feel like that’s taken a step back with the financial tsunami that’s hit in the last year. It seems like there’s less innovation going on across the board in newsrooms right now. That’s probably the biggest concern, is that the recession set the transition to the Web back. . . .

“And I guess that’s the other thing I’m starting to see across the industry right now, is that the Web side collectively at news sites seems to have a lot less freedom than it did two or three years ago, largely because it’s a victim of its own success. Web sites grew, revenue at the Web sites grew, it became increasingly clear that the Web was the future, and I think at that point there was a decision made at a lot of newspaper companies that the newspaper has to run this thing, it’s just gotten too important. And I’m not sure that was good for innovation.”

Brady left the Post several months ago, as the separate print and Web operations were to be merged. He’s now a consultant for The Guardian, one of the leaders of news innovation that’s trying to tap into a Web-heavy news consuming audience in the U.S. One of his main points of contention is that general interest news products are ill-suited to master the niche orientation of the Web:

“You can certainly build traffic through your areas of expertise. But I don’t think that producing a paper that’s great at 30 percent of the subjects it covers and OK at the other 70 percent really has much of a future on the Web, because it’s just too hard to compete.”

For journalists outside the newsroom structure, this is a marvelous opportunity to really carve out that niche now, sooner rather than later. I’ve written about this many times before, here and here, so forgive me if this sounds like old news. Newspapers just aren’t able, or willing, to devote reporters to go deep on beats as they once did. So many of them are scrambling to be generalists more than ever. The old saw about newspapers favoring breadth over depth has become more pronounced.

There simply isn’t an excuse any longer for a post-newsroom journalist not to have a blog devoted to their beat, to their niche. Never has there been a better opportunity to do this. If you’re looking for work, even freelance work, this is even more imperative. And yet, I’ve had conversations with journalists like myself, people I know well and who know how much I preach about this topic, who still don’t contemplate doing this. They blog for “fun” or post online the same kinds of stories they would for a newspaper.

One of the best examples of local, niche-oriented blogs in my city defined the growing trend of niche journalism this way:

“Be it laid-off writers or verbose jerks like me, the rest of us will be left with the unenviable task of figuring out what the population wants to read. Many of us will fail trying, overwhelmed by the demands of new media, too inflexible to experiment, or because we just can’t write worth a darn. However, enough will succeed and before we know it, a new, more diverse world of media will have emerged.”

Some other good reads on the topic are here and here and here.

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