- Jennifer Peters
Niche publications are a big business in 2017. Though they may attract smaller audiences than traditional news outlets, there are hundreds of niche publications, with a website or magazine covering practically every area of interest there could ever be.
For book lovers there’s Publisher’s Weekly, RT Book Reviews and The Millions. Military aficionados can get their fill of defense news and analysis from Task & Purpose, War on the Rocks, Military Times and Small Wars Journal. Foodies have Bon Appetit and Modern Farmer. There are niche news sites targeted to millennial women, like The Washington Post’s The Lily, Bustle and Broadly. Fitness fanatics have Men’s Journal, Self and Women’s Health. And that list barely scratches the surface of all the niche news options available to readers.
Because niche sites have such a narrow focus, their writers are often subject-matter experts. They catch small news tidbits that news outlets with a more general focus may miss, and they’re able to provide deeper insights because of their expertise. General assignment reporters can learn from niche sites by looking at the news they choose to cover and the archives of in-depth reporting they offer.
“As a small team, we constantly have to prioritize what stories are most important to our readers and what we can add to the reporting we publish,” says Lauren Katzenberg, cofounder and managing editor of Task & Purpose. “We are never going to keep up with the larger newsrooms at places like The New York Times and The Washington Post, but our team is made up of journalists who not only cover military and veteran issues, but are a product of them. We use this experience to inform our reporting in a way a lot of outlets are unable to do.”
At Task & Purpose, writers are not only subject-matter experts, but many have first-hand experience serving in the military or working with the military as civilians. Katzenberg spent two years in Kabul, Afghanistan, working for a local media company that worked with the Department of Defense and U.S. State Department, among others. Though she’s a civilian, her previous career had her working closely with the military, and many of her civilian employees have similar connections to the armed forces.
As Katzenberg notes, however, her team and others devoted entirely to military and defense issues aren’t the only ones covering these topics. “When Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island drill instructor Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix was court-martialed for hazing three Muslim recruits, Wade Livingston did some incredible reporting of this trial for the Island Packet. I’d love to see more local reporters like him brought on as guests on national cable networks instead of ‘hot take’ pundits.”
There are many newspapers that have military bases in their coverage area, and those reporters are likely to have a little more experience covering defense matters because they directly affect the local readership. But even if your paper doesn’t typically cover military affairs, chances are you have veterans and military personnel living in your community, so at some point those issues will warrant a story.
“In today’s political environment, we’re seeing a greater overlap of civilian, political and military issues debated on a national stage than in previous years,” Katzenberg says.
Modern Farmer Editor-in-Chief Sarah Gray Miller suggests that general assignment reporters treat all niche areas of coverage as a beat. “A big part of [covering the news] is staying connected and in touch with people who are a part of this community and this world, whether they are farmers or chefs or policymakers or food movement activists,” Miller says. “Some of the best stories we’ve done have come from me having lunch with someone who’s a forger for Whole Foods Northeast region. So I think being plugged in and communicating regularly, as busy as we are, helps. People know they can just text me and say, ‘You should look into this.’”
Both Katzenberg and Miller run sites that cater to a wide spectrum of readers, from those with a casual knowledge or interest in the subjects to those who are serious experts, and not every story needs to be written for every reader.
“We always want to make sure we’re telling a story in a way that invokes Task & Purpose’s brand, which is going to be different from the typical newsroom that strives for objectivity. We offer balanced reporting but with a strong voice,” Katzenberg says. “When we approach a story, we’re constantly asking what’s missing, what is the mainstream media not considering, what do people in the military/veteran community know that is being left out of this dialogue. As a team, we decide on the way to approach a story and go from there.”
For Miller her audience ranges from people with a new curiosity to professional farmers. “I ratchet up the difficulty level of my job by trying to make almost everything we do speak to both of those audiences,” Miller says. “You want the professional and seasoned farmer reading you and you don’t want them to think you don’t know your stuff. But for people who are sort of ‘fantasy farmers’ and are interested in where their food comes from, you don’t want to condescend to them, so I try to keep it on a relatively high level for the professionals and then drop in context clues for the newbies.
“While some of our pieces about policy can get pretty wonky, that stuff ultimately affects the consumer,” Miller adds. “We did a column recently on the Food Safety Modernization Act and the new FDA rules governing produce, but I made a point to let the consumer know that this is going to affect them and it’s going to affect whether or not small organic farms are able to stay in business. Just like everything we cover, it’s farmers who are speaking in the piece, but ultimately the concerned consumer will care about the same issues.”
Ultimately, Miller says not to be afraid of asking dumb questions. While many journalists want to come across as knowledgeable about the areas they’re covering, Miller says you should feel comfortable asking the most basic of questions, too. By doing so, she says, often you’ll get a new angle for your story. This is especially important for reporters who are covering a niche topic for a general audience. “Some of our stories come from just asking the really obvious question and then doing a deep dive into it,” she explains. “There’s a real opportunity to ask dumb questions and then go deeper than most media outlets do.”