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The power of focus: building a strong niche publishing business

January 19, 2017 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

The media industry is in a time of great transition, in part due to the proliferation of digital publications and the growth and popularity of social platforms. While industry consolidation might threaten the independence of some publications, there is also an unprecedented opportunity for publishers to communicate their unique perspective to underserved, targeted audiences.

With this in mind—and with the help of funding from the Knight Foundation—Digital Content Next worked with Ascolese Associates on the research report Niche Publishers: How to Create Sustainable Business Models in a Digital Marketplace, released January 18. This niche publisher research examines how 11 digital publications each capture a unique space, attract audiences, and monetize those audiences.


“I know firsthand that we’re much more nimble than larger news organizations. We can try things out quickly. You know, we can try things out and fail fast, or we can try things out and see some early wins and then build on them. I really appreciate our ability to be nimble and flexible and measure our results and make quick decisions.”
Mary Walter-Brown, Voice of San Diego

The research identified two core focus areas for niche publishers that are vital for their success: content strategy and business strategy. According to the report, these core focus areas are made up of seven tactical components, which are discussed in detail: content development, editorial brand, audience development/ delivery, data, KPI’s, revenue streams and operational efficiencies.

Publishers interviewed agreed that superior content is the core deliverable, but content alone can’t drive a publication to success; an integrated business strategy is necessary. While a quest for scale dominates many digital strategies, niche publishers focus on providing distinctive, even unique content that meets the needs of a very specific audience.

Almost universally, these niche publishers emphasized something that has become a common theme across digital media: the importance of revenue diversification. Additional revenue streams give non-profit publishers more independence from corporate and individual sponsorships and for-profit publishers some independence from advertising sales.


“The number one mistake that media companies make is that they have a journalistic idea, and it’s not done in tandem with a business idea that operates in synchronicity with the journalistic idea.”
Jim Vandehei, Axios

Many niche publishers interviewed cite repurposing content and digital or live events among their revenue streams. However, other avenues include outsourcing internal talent, a “data store,” and a marketing membership program. Notable among these publishers is a willingness to collaborate and create partnerships that allow them to fight above their weight class in terms of staffing and data resources.

Ultimately, the report finds that a niche publication’s smaller size translates into a flexible and nimble environment and, often, a more entrepreneurial approach to their business. Notable among these publishers is a willingness to collaborate and create partnerships that allow them to maximize their staffing and data resources but also to ensure the viability of this segment of the digital media industry.

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