2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Niche news targeting is what’s tearing America apart

Published: June 17, 2014, 11:24 am, by interns

by Emily Donovan
Gazette Local News Reporter Intern, Summer 2014

I too hate following newspapers on Twitter. But it’s good for me.

A column criticizing The New York Times’s Innovation Report details exactly why following @nytimes — or @csgazette by those standards — is the worst.

Newspapers tweet about everything. Republican debate, fire risk weather warning, high school hockey coach, car accident, World Cup, Nebraska tornado, zoo animal. These are random topics and rarely fall in my interests.

The column argues that newspapers would be more Twitter successful if they chose one specialized topic — a niche — and only reported about that topic. This is probably true. It’s also a bad idea.

Niches have followers and therefore get more clicks. But newspapers can’t let how many clicks the brief gets decide if a reporter covers city council meetings.

Newspapers create informed citizens. Niche media create consumers.

Democracy works when people learn about something, talk, and make a collective decision. This only happens when we  have a public sphere, where people can get informed and respectfully debate a topic.

Newspapers tell you what you should be talking about. With a shared source of information, readers learn and talk about the same topic.

Niche media tells you what you’re already talking about. You already like hiking if you read Out There Colorado, The Gazette’s outdoorsy special section. You already agree with Glenn Beck or Jon Stewart if you watch their programs.

Niche media protects us from hearing about things we don’t like. You miss out on a lot alternative perspectives if The Glenn Beck Program or The Daily Show is the only program you get your news from. If you’re not hearing things you don’t already agree with, you become falsely confident that your existing opinion is the only real opinion out there.

We’re an increasingly partisan public. A Gallup poll conducted in 2009 found that 70 percent of Republicans identified as conservative or very conservative; 40 percent of Democrats identified as liberal or very liberal.

If I only ever read Out There Colorado, I’d miss out on local concerts, politics, and all other topics that Out There Colorado doesn’t cater to. I might start thinking that hiking is the only thing going on around here.

Newspapers expose mainstream consumers to stories that they don’t already know.

My coverage of a local musician for The Gazette did well online. But the same topic seems to have done slightly better online at a competing media outlet that better targets local cultural reporting.

They have a niche. Their readers who are already interested in local music will read more about local music.

But Gazette readers may not have otherwise known about that local musician. Now they might get to talk about something new and different for them.

If newspapers tell you what you should be talking about, good stories give you an opportunity to expand your comfort zone.

Humanizing topics a little bit out of the mainstream comfort zone was what I loved about my job as the features beat reporter at The University Daily Kansan. I got to help readers understand topics like prosthetics, transgenderism, and mental illness. Most University of Kansas students would otherwise have never been so intimately familiar with the students I featured.

Niche doesn’t guarantee success.

My college newspaper, The Kansan, has a monopoly over student senate coverage. Student senate ought to be our niche.

The topic is always relevant to our target demographic of KU undergraduate students because each KU student pays student senate a required campus fee at the beginning of the year — $882 last August. There’s a guaranteed readership of at least student senators and any campus group trying to get funding.

I did a story analyzing student senate election voter turnout rates, published opening day of voting for this past year’s election.

I pulled every BuzzFeed-inspired trick I knew. I made an infographic. A line graph made the numbers look easy. I used Storify to embed tweets from the candidates. There were subheads and a numbered list and interesting quotations from well-known student leaders.

Regardless, it got only 247 unique views online. Not bad, but not great. If clicks determines how important a story is, 247 is not enough of an incentive for me to spend another two days digging through Kansan archives and KU enrollment records to calculate turnout rates again next year.

That story earned 247 views because it targeted KU’s niche of involved student leaders. But it wasn’t a well-told narrative or the most important news that day. @KansanNews followers not already in its niche didn’t click.

Targeting a niche can’t replace quality writing on vital developments.

Good journalism can succeed without a niche.

I did a weight loss surgery feature story. I got details like what his McDonald’s drive-through order was and what his brother said to make him realize he was killing himself slowly. It starts like this:

An alarm went off at McCollum Residence Hall one night last winter. Someone was sneaking in a back door.

Brandon Johannes, a desk assistant, bolted up from the security table. He took off running, but he stumbled and fell on the carpet, skinning his elbow.

He was thrilled.

“It was my first physically-related injury from being able to get up and move,” Johannes said.

This story was human. It was vulnerable.

But it wasn’t especially relevant to Kansan readers. Morbid obesity is far from common on KU’s fit, basketball-focused campus. My editor trusted me to make readers care about a topic they weren’t personally invested in.

It got 1,496 unique views online. I got an email thanking me for changing opinions on food addiction and if morbidly obese people should be treated like people.

Stories that do well on kansan.com are generally either circumstantial big events — a brief about a student found dead, fisheye photo of football fans tearing down the goalpost after a surprise win, a column about a basketball player’s embarrassing sex photo — or inherently good.

We want to read good stories. Good stories that change our perspective. As informed citizens, we have an obligation to be exposed to alternative perspectives.

Sometimes, we have to leave our pre-existing areas of interest to do so. Follow @csgazette for exactly that.

Emily Donovan is an undergraduate student at the University of Kansas from Kansas City, Kan. Follow her on Twitter @emdons.