The Rise of The Single Subject Platform

A Research Project by News Deeply &

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University

By Lara Setrakian and Kristin Nolan 

News has never been more readily available, to users and to the journalists who serve them. Any reporter with an Internet connection can set up a web-based media outlet, covering a unique beat. In our digital age, it is the equivalent of becoming an overnight publisher of a niche news magazine.

The democratization of access – a decentralized ownership of the means of production – has led to the proliferation of single-subject websites, where one topic is covered with intensity and focus. From tracking how your favorite NHL hockey team is going to deal with the new salary cap (Capgeek.com) to covering government transparency in addressing violent crime (Homicidewatch.com), single-subject websites are serving the passionate, niche news consumers looking for more information than mainstream outlets can provide.

This trend has expanded quickly, with niche news sites gaining both visibility and credibility; this year, a niche publication called InsideClimate News won the Pulitzer Prize. The trend warrants further investigation as it spreads.  Are single topic niche news sites developing a new model for modern publishing and setting new journalistic norms?

 

Niche-News Publishing: A Growing Market

 The past five years have seen the emergence of single-subject online news outlets, from Health Map to Tehran Bureau to Homicide Watch. These single-subject sites claim to respond to a consumer desire for in-depth coverage of a particular topic; in each case, there was a niche audience that felt underserved by the mainstream press, which, by their estimation, had failed to provide consistent and comprehensive coverage of a certain topic. In response, entrepreneurial journalists stepped in to fill this gap, addressing that niche audience through in-depth, subject-specific coverage.

In the case of domestic issues, the emergence of single-subject outlets is a journalistic response to an overall shrinking of investigative news. As one example, Homicide Watch in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, emerged from a lack of follow-through on the part of local news outlets and a perceived need for a richer information environment around crime reporting. The impact of its work appears to be substantial: it has yielded more transparency into homicide cases across DC, advancing the justice process and public safety for the District.

In the case of foreign issues, these single-subject sites have emerged as a response to a decline in international news coverage in the mainstream press. This came as a result of the commercial pressures within the mainstream media environment, forcing the closure of foreign news bureaus abroad. According to the American Journalism Review, over 20 papers and companies have cut their foreign bureaus entirely since their first media census in 1998.[1] Furthermore, steep cuts have been seen since the last census in 2003, from 307 full-time foreign correspondents to the most recent measure of 234 full-time correspondents in 2011. While the use of freelance journalists may have partially filled the gap, this still represents a dramatic reduction in the supply side of international news, as offered through traditional news outlets. In a 2010 analysis of 8 daily US newspapers, it was found that the number of stories dedicated to foreign news was slashed by more than half, from 689 news stories to 321 while the percentage of staff dedicated to covering foreign news at these papers declined from 14% to 4% in the same time period.[2]

The significance of this trend in foreign news is representative of a larger dilemma for the media industry. In a world where information is expected to be free, how do we produce a sustainable business model that can generate revenue without making an audience pay for content? At the user level, how do we better serve the audience for niche news stories? At a macro level, how do we ensure that cost pressures on mainstream new outlets don’t leave vital stories underreported – absent from the knowledge pool? In an increasingly complex and interconnected world, a failure to provide consistent, in-depth reporting will have lasting effects on the strength of democracy.

For the pool of emerging niche publishers, the stakes and the potential benefits are high: if they succeed, single-subject websites could dramatically raise the supply of high-quality journalism, covering complex and chronic issues that go underreported in modern media. Niche publishers can take advantage of digital tools of the day in creating a lean operations model; to borrow a phrase from the book by Eric Reis, it is “Lean Startup” philosophy, applied to the media world.

Moreover, for the beat reporter, it represents and unprecedented opportunity to serve a hyper-focused audience, capturing the market and building a community among return users. This can enhance the quality of reporting, as user feedback and potential sources become part of a steady flow of information.

 

Exploring the Single-Subject Website

With the support of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and The Knight Foundation, Executive Editor Lara Setrakian and Lead Researcher Kristin Nolan will explore this general trend in the digital world. Emphasis will be put on studying how single-subject websites have responded to the lack of in-depth coverage of international issues and crises.

The discussion and study will cover a variety of online archetypes to capture the single-subject trend is in its infancy. In summary, we hope to jumpstart dialogue, create a community of like-minded leaders, and build a roadmap for others wishing to grow their own single-subject websites.

This project will involve three phases: A) The Exploratory Phase (July-November 2013); B) The Conference (November 8-10 2013); and C) The Research and Discovery Phase (November 2013-April 2014).

During the Exploratory Phase, we will conduct a baseline assessment of the realm of single-subject websites, forming an easy digestible map to the industry based upon topic and area of focus. This phase will also include working with our partners to collect quantitative and qualitative data on single-subject websites. This phase will culminate in the release of a White Paper at the conference in November.

The Conference will provide an excellent opportunity for interested parties to network, gather data, workshop their websites, and learn more about this model on an in-depth level. The primary goal of this conference is to analyze, as a group, the areas of success as well as room for growth within this model. The outcome of this conference will be an established network of Single-Subject Publishers entitled the Single-Subject News Network, where Publishers can set the standard for future participants.

The final phase of this project, the Research and Discovery Phase will be dedicated to collecting all data from the initial two phases and producing a final Research Report, a Handbook for Journalists, and a Teaching Kit for Journalism Schools. Also during this time, the Single-Subject News Network will expand its reach, attempting to produce higher quality information on its niche news network.

 

Defining a Single-Subject News Site

 The world of the single-subject platform is a vast one that covers all of the topics one would find in the traditional newspaper, broken up and divided out across single-subject platforms to fill the gap these entrepreneurs see in the news space. As a result, one can find single-subject platforms in all the veins of the traditional newspaper: domestic news, international news, and then in what we call the “features” categories, including: science/technology, arts, sports, the gossip column, home and garden, and even the op-ed section. This phenomenon is easy to spot, but those websites that have emerged in the domestic and international reporting space require an element of in-depth investigation that has replaced the beat of the former domestic or foreign service bureau member. This makes the space they occupy much different than a features-oriented website, which is what this study will focus on. However, we recognize the significance and substance of other types of sites and within this study we will explore and map an emblematic few from each features category (excluding op-ed which is not a reporting or fact-based features section), drawing upon the lessons learned from these sections, including how they monetize their feature.

Because this study will explore single-subject websites that are aimed at delivering substantive journalism, based on research and fact-based reporting, we have set parameters for inclusion and exclusion. A single-subject website is a website that: (1) addresses one topic that is (2) sufficiently narrow in scope, (3) fact-driven and that (4) started online, (5) are independently funded by private actors (i.e. not-governmental entities), (6) will not include city or local newspapers, and (7) are English-language focused due to time and language constraints.

(1)  A website must address one topic in depth, delving into a single story of single angle within a broader story; it brings a narrow focus on a topic perceived by the founder to be underreported and underserved within mainstream sources.

(2)  The topic addressed must be sufficiently narrow in scope. For example, a website that deals with “US News” as a topic is not a single subject website but one that deals with “US Healthcare” on an in-depth level is because it addresses a niche audience within a larger topic, filling a gap in available information about that issue. Often, the test of a niche news site will come in the website’s audience; the target audience, or user base, will reflect the relatively narrow focus of the reporting.

(3)  The website must feature a clear emphasis on fact-based reporting versus opinion. For instance, some blogs may have similar characteristics to a single-subject website in topical focus, however, if they are overwhelmingly based on opinion, rather than reporting the facts, then we would not consider them eligible for this study. Similarly, “conspiracy theory” websites aimed at promoting or debunking a particular point of view would not be considered in this study.

(4)  The organization must have its origins online rather than converted from a prior publication or existing news media outlet. The rationale behind this qualifier is to highlight the rising trend of entrepreneurial websites designed to fill a gap, not a pre-existing news provider that transitioned to the online market.

(5)  The website must be funded by non-governmental sources by private actors (i.e. not-governmental entities).

(6)  City newspapers, while niche in focus, are not eligible for this study. While many city newspapers conduct in-depth investigative research on issues of local importance, this coverage tends not to go to the national level, and therefore does not fill a gap in mainstream media, although there are clear exceptions of cases where a local story has gone national.

(7)  While there are many concrete examples of non-English sources who do in-depth investigative journalism, due to the language constraints of the Research Team, these sources will be unable to be studied at this time.

 

Methodology

We will conduct initial research and a baseline assessment of single-subject news sites, mapping the landscape. Subsequently, we will refine our database of single-subject websites, selecting a series of 20 “Single Subject Publishers” who will share their experience and operating model, including funding information, data analytics, and choice of information architecture. By collecting this data, we can begin to assess the case studies and best practices for single-subject websites. In time, we will compile those into two handbooks that can assist future journalist-entrepreneurs looking to create single-subject websites as well as develop a Single Subject News Network, where a wide variety of single-subject websites can come together to further their knowledge as well as promote their unique sites.

Deliverables over the course of this project will include:

- A Research Report on the single-subject model, listing notable case studies and charting their net impact. This would include:

  • An analysis of metric data, such as return rates, time on site, and clear traffic drivers.
  • Analyses of business models to understand where and how specific sites have achieved sustainability.
  • An analysis of journalistic ethics, in cases where specific issues were raised over the course of the websites news coverage.

- A Handbook for Journalists seeking to build single-subject sites, including applications of journalistic ethics in the digital context.

- A Teaching Kit for Journalism Schools, using these platforms as case studies or hoping to provide their students with viable career opportunities after graduation.

-A Workshop/Conference at the Tow Center November 8-10 2013, convening single-subject journalists. Through this conference, we will create the Single-Subject News Network, a network of specialized digital journalists, otherwise known as “Publishers” under the Tow Center’s umbrella. The initial class of 20 Publishers will provide data for the research will contribute to the data gathered for this study. The conference itself and subsequent follow-ups would provide additional data for research purposes.

 

Call for Single Subject Publishers

This project is seeking an elite first class of 20 “Single-Subject Publishers” to participate in the conference as well as help provide anonymous information that can assist this study. Data collected will include: analytics, site traffic numbers, financial avenues, qualitative/quantitative analysis of website construction, return rates, traffic origins, etc. Publishers will help us shape and build the Single Subject News Network, in so doing; they will have the opportunity to workshop and improve upon their websites, ultimately providing better information to their audiences, while networking with other like-minded individuals to learn from their successes and mistakes.

For more information, or to be included in this study or for conference updates, please email your name, organizational affiliation, request for inclusion/request for conference updates, and any comments or questions you may have to: kln2120@columbia.edu.  You will be notified of your inclusion by October 1, 2013.

For more information on the Single Subject News Network and this research project, please follow us at:

Website http://beta.syriadeeply.org/

FACEBOOK https://www.facebook.com/SingleSubjectNewsNetwork

TWITTER @hypertopical


[1] American Journalism Review. “Retreating from the World”. http://www.arj.org/article.asp?id=4985 . <Accessed February 28, 2013>.

[2] American Journalism Review. “Shrinking Foreign Coverage.” [http://www.ajr.org/article.asp?id=4998. <Accessed June 4, 2013>.

 

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