Niche Media’s Rise Does Not Come at Newspapers’ Expense

Photo: Steven RollBy Steven Roll
ASBPE President

The mainstream newspapers that once covered Capitol Hill have been overtaken by niche publications that deliver content aimed at a particular business or industry. That was the finding of a recent report issued by, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Besides a column from media columnist Howard Kurtz for the Washington Post, the general reaction to the report seems somewhat muted. Perhaps it’s because the report confirms what journalists in the specialty or trade press have known for some time now.

Unfortunately, the report implies that the rise of the niche media has come at newspapers’ expense. While the decline of newspapers is lamentable, it’s more likely the result of a faulty business model than the success of specialty publications.

Disparaging Tone. The report’s disparaging tone toward niche media is hard to overlook. It begins by harkening back to the days when “mainstream media journalists — and much of Washington itself — looked down upon the work of these publications as both boring and peripheral to the ‘real’ challenge of covering Washington politics.”

But there is a wealth of good news in the report for B2B journalists willing to withstand the author’s barbs. The report notes that:

  • Hudson’s listings of specialty magazines, newsletters and periodicals jumped up by roughly one-third between 1985 and 2008 and by nearly 20 percent between 2004 and 2008.
  • Between 1986 and 2007 there was a 61 percent rise in newsletters with Washington bureaus or staff.
  • Edwin Chen of Bloomberg News will become the president of the White House Correspondents Association in the spring of 2009.
  • Niche publications have broken major stories involving malfeasance that were picked up by the mainstream media.

Grudging praise has to be one of the most sincere forms of flattery. Unfortunately, the report also:

  • Suggests that the proliferation of niche publications is undermining the democratic process because only lobbyists and other corporate interests can afford their high subscription fees.
  • Says the niche media is “more known for its ability to report exhaustively on narrow, complex issues, than for aggressive investigative or what some call public service journalism.”
  • Characterizes as absurdly narrow the coverage of specialty publications such as ClimateWire, noting that “online newsletter devoted more than half the stories to the new Obama presidency, but it did so solely through the prism of climate change.”

The last criticism begs a question. If a specialty publication’s readers expect them to information about climate change, why would it cover a different topic?

America’s Fourth Estate. A mainstream press that serves as a watchdog for government or corporate malfeasance is a critical component of democracy in the U.S. It earned the title as America’s Fourth Estate by breaking monumental stories such as Watergate.

But this vital institution has failed to successfully adapt to the recent advances in communications technology that has spurred niche publications’ success. Change is hard. An important first step would be to work towards adopting the business models and journalistic practices that have worked so well for the niche media.

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