In the age of niche media, everyone still really wants to be mass

by Mathew on February 23, 2015

One of the best things about the web is that it allows almost anyone to start up a website, and that has meant an explosion of choices when it comes to media, especially recently — with the rise of BuzzFeed, the launch of sites like Vox and Fusion, and blog networks like Gawker. And of course we still have all the old places too, like the New York Times and Washington Post and The Atlantic. If anything, we have too many places publishing great content for anyone to keep up.

And that brings up a related problem, which Purdue University doctoral student Frederik De Boer wrote about in a recent blog post. In a nutshell, De Boer said that his problem with many of the new-media sites that have popped up over the past year, such as Fusion — which was launched recently by the Fusion network, a cable channel co-owned by Disney/ABC and Univision that caters to millennials — is that they share a certain sameness of content. They all want to believe they are different, but they aren’t.

“It just isn’t about anything in the way that the site’s founders and editorial people clearly want it to be. You can write a manifesto, and you can have some sort of goofy TV channel side-piece going on, and you’re still another site publishing people writing about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports. And in that, you’re joining every other website that publishes about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports.”

A striking sameness

De Boer goes on to talk about other sites such as Slate and The Atlantic, the revamped New York Times magazine, the New Republic, Vox and several others, and his point (as I take it) is that each of these is producing something very similar to its competitors — the names may be different, and each site has something or someone that might stand out from time to time, but for the most part they are each covering the news in politics, culture and sometimes sports in a very similar way.

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Some of De Boer’s criticisms of different sites feel a bit like a drive-by-shooting: the New Republic, for example, consists of “the same stuff, written by every non-white male [new editor] Gabriel Snyder could find to exorcise the vengeful presence of Marty Peretz,” while Vox has “a new-fangled invention called the card-stack — an innovative approach which allows webpages to link to other pages.” The Awl is described as “a lot of the same stuff, brought to you by the emotion sadness.”

Those sarcastic descriptions aside, however, I think De Boer makes a good point, which is summed up in the title of his post: “Unless your site is about one thing, it’s about everything.” I think his point is that if your site doesn’t have a unique focus, or a theme or defining vision when it comes to what you cover and when, then you are going to look like everyone else. And that’s not a good thing.

“I no longer know what a website means as an identity, unless that identity is a specific subject. I know what Guns and Ammo is. I know what Road and Track is. (I know what Redtube is.) I don’t know what Fusion is.”

That’s not to say everything is mass-oriented, of course. Sites like Search Engine Land and Skift are aimed at a niche market, and while they may not get as much publicity, they are arguably better businesses in many ways. Other sites such as The Information — which charges $400 a year — are clearly aimed at niche readers as well. But most of the attention in the media sphere seems to go towards the sites with the really big numbers, like BuzzFeed or Gawker.

A drive for revenue

It’s ironic in many ways, but there’s a tension within the online media industry right now: Even though the web theoretically allows individual writers or groups of writers to target very specific audiences and be successful doing so — as the tech blogger Ben Thompson has been able to do with his site Stratechery, for example — there is still a huge amount of pressure (both perceived and actual) for sites to be as broad and encompassing as the mass media they have replaced.

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Much of that pressure comes from an advertising-driven revenue model, which is driven by the need for large numbers, of pageviews or unique visitors, etc. My friend Josh Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab is right that some of this comes from the fact that BuzzFeed and Vox are VC-funded and therefore need scale. But on top of that, there is internal pressure for a broad or large audience, because it makes those who are writing and publishing feel as though their work has more value. Says De Boer:

“These places run good writing. I’m not disputing that. I’m just saying that they are always launched with fanfare about what makes them different, but I’m not sure that you can ever maintain that kind of vision as an actually-existing publisher unless your site has a very specific, subject matter-based focus. When you’ve got to find enough writing to run, and you’ve received some great pitch that might not reflect your mission statement, what are you gonna choose? The abstraction of sensibility or the reality of good writing?”

The risk is that because you can write about anything, you feel like you should write about everything. But De Boer’s point is a good one. To the extent that your content feels as though it could have appeared at any one of a dozen different sites, that’s bad — it makes it dramatically less likely that anyone will a) remember your site or b) deliberately choose to go back there.

With more and more people finding content through social networks and sharing, there’s already a declining likelihood that they will remember where a specific piece of news or commentary came from. Do you really need to make it even harder by writing about all the same things every other site is? That leaves you chasing the drive-by, click-through audience, and that is the worst business in the world. Anything you can do to differentiate yourself is good. But too many are chasing the mass audience because that’s what advertisers want and that’s what investors want.

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