How to Create Killer Niche Web Sites Without Hiring

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By: Steve Outing

News flash. (Not really.) Newspaper managers and decision-makers have it rough. At the same time that industry pressures are forcing layoffs and cutbacks, industry pundits and people like me are telling them that they need to do more. Reporting the news and running retail and classified ads isn’t enough in a media environment where competition is exploding and what newspapers traditionally have produced is now a commodity.

The trick to succeeding in the future will include adding on to the traditional news-gathering function (still vital, of course), most likely serving new niches with deep coverage that cannot easily be found elsewhere and thus building new devoted audiences. How the heck are you going to do that?

One answer: pro-am journalism initiatives.

‘Citizen Journalism 2.0’?
We in the news industry have been talking about “citizen journalism” for some time. Early initiatives tended toward the model of providing simple-to-use publishing tools that anyone could employ to share what they know. Failed early initiatives like took a hands-off approach to news and other content submitted by community members. While it was a laudable goal to give everyone a voice and allow them to share what they know, the quality — sans professional editing and gatekeeping — was low, and the sites failed to establish enough of an audience to become sustainable businesses.

(My own Enthusiast Group start-up of 2006-07, a grassroots-media model applied to participant sports, suffered similar problems, as I documented in this column a few months ago. E&P archive

With those lessons learned, what I’m beginning to see now are more initiatives that combine the noble intentions of the “citizen journalism” movement with professional editing and oversight. While I have never really liked the term citizen journalism and wish we could come up with something better, what I’ll describe in this column is perhaps Citizen Journalism 2.0. Better might be an entirely new name; one of the innovators profiled in this column describes his platform as “By Invitation 2.0.”

This suggests a changing role for professional journalists. Some (probably not all) will shift some of their focus from purely original reporting to recruiting, overseeing, guiding and editing selected community members who join in the new form of pro-am journalism.

In this column I’ll discuss two new initiatives — Thought Leader from the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, and’s “Examiners” initiative in the U.S. — which look promising in terms of harnessing the power of the community to produce relevant content while maintaining editorial control over quality.

Thought Leader: The By-Invitation Approach
I think these guys are on to something. The Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa last year developed a website called Thought Leader, which is a collection of edited essays from selected community members. The site focuses on opinion, and it looks like a nicely done op-ed page of sorts. The key difference is that the writers are mostly members of the community, not M&G staff members and columnists.

The site’s writers produce blog items rather than “columns,” though the items often are long enough to fit the column description. But as “bloggers” rather than “columnists,” they are free to contribute at their own pace and schedule. All submissions are edited by M&G staff, and even user comments are reviewed before they are published. The writers have some guidelines, such as writing about issues and not using Thought Leader as a venue for writing about their personal lives.

Matthew Buckland, general manager of Mail & Guardian Online, describes Thought Leader as “a mash-up of journalists, commentators, industry experts, academics, politicians and up-and-coming writers all writing on the same platform on generalist issues and niches. It is user-generated content from a closed, selected network of users.”

So far, this experiment seems to be a success. Buckland reports that at 6 months old, Thought Leader now is the biggest-performing area on the M&G’s website other than the homepage and accounts for about 1/5th of all traffic. The site’s contributors have written 1.25 million words to date, and 2.5 million words have come from people commenting on the posts to the site.

Here’s the kicker: That was achieved with a budget of zero.

Buckland explains that so far, writers have not been paid to contribute to Thought Leader, though he and his staff are contemplating a future program where the top-drawing writers do receive shares of advertising revenue. “There are a good many writers out there where writing is a secondary activity and represents more passion than profession,” he says. “Academics and many commentators have this approach. Not everyone writes for the bucks.” Compensation does come in the form of quid pro quo: The writers get an area for their profiles, where they may promote themselves.

Staff cost has been minimal, too. Existing web staff have gotten Thought Leader to this point: Buckland, the online editor, technical manager, and online sales people to sell advertising. (The site has sold ads to some major advertisers, and was profitable from its second month.) Now that the site has growth significantly, it’s beginning to be unmanageable with existing staff, so Buckland is looking to hire an editor for it. Given the site’s success, “It’s easy to justify a new hire.”

Finally, the other cost savings come in the form of technology. The platform that Buckland and crew built for Thought Leader was done with open-source CMS WordPress, which was hacked considerably. (He’s beginning to hunt for other publishers who like the model to license the platform that was developed for this project.)

With the positive experience of Thought Leader, the M&G will soon roll out other websites based on the same model: Tech Leader, Business Leader, Media Leader and Sports Leader.

Buckland thinks that his “hybrid approach” of blogging and traditional journalism is a smart way forward for news companies looking to expand into niche coverage while operating under trying financial circumstances. “I don’t believe media should be complete hands-off blog hosters like for just any content,” he says. “Newspapers are quality content providers. This is their unique selling proposition and differentiator in the chaotic digital and online world that enables just about anyone to be a writer, journalist or photographer. But at the same time, newspapers cannot ignore the power of citizen media and user-generated content.

“I feel a hybrid approach via an ‘editorial blog’ model like Thought Leader is a perfect compromise. Essentially it brings the best of both publishing formats: blogs, but with an editor and full moderation. It’s a way newspapers can get into blogging and embrace citizen media, but also keep to their core principles of gatekeeping and editorial quality control. It’s a way newspapers can harness user intelligence, intelligently.”

Here Come The Examiners, the network of news websites owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz and serving his newspaper properties as well as other communities independently, has a new initiative that plays with some of the same concepts of pro-am journalism., based in Denver, Colorado, has 60 websites (most of them do not have an owned newspaper in their markets), and a new program is being phased in that will have each of them hiring a crew of “Examiners” to cover their communities. The concept is in full swing at sites serving Denver, Seattle and Baltimore.

An Examiner is a contract writer who covers a specific niche within the community. At the Denver, for example, there are Examiners covering the Denver Broncos, the University of Colorado, Denver politics, beer and the Denver gay scene, among others. The Denver site has a total of 27 local Examiners at this writing. There are also 15 national Examiners serving broad topics (celebrities, education, Internet buzz, etc.) and that run across all sites.

That’s a lot of manpower, it would seem. But as contract workers, the Examiners do the work part time and are paid based on pageviews that their content generates. Being an Examiner is somewhat akin to being a “guide” for, which uses a large network of contractors to produce content on niche topics. The main difference is that Examiners serve as quasi-reporters, in some cases covering news, while guides serve more as resource providers on their topics than journalists. While an Examiner position in theory could be someone’s full-time gig, the compensation scheme apparently makes that unlikely.

Examiners are primarily bloggers, though they also are encouraged to go beyond writing and express themselves using audio and video. CEO Michael Sherrod says the idea is to recruit a set of intelligent people to cover a community from many angles. Some Examiners hired so far are bloggers already well known in their communities. Some professional journalists are interested in the gigs as extra income and a means of expression for topics that they’re passionate about (and that don’t conflict with their day-job duties). Others may be students, academics, business people, community leaders, and so on.

A key difference from Thought Leader contributors is that Examiners are all paid, and there’s no intention of getting people to work for free, says Sherrod. The company is still formulating the compensation scheme, but for now a pay-per-pageview model seems the most likely approach.

Sherrod says that he wants to figure out how to add more Examiners for each city and at the same time compensate them all. At the Denver site, there’s currently one Examiner, a student, covering the University of Colorado, for example. He says that he hopes that she will reach out to the CU community and bring them more Examiners to cover the University, all paid on a per-pageview basis.

The pro-am aspect of the Examiners model is in an editorial support infrastructure. Each city will have a local content director overseeing a team of Examiners. At the corporate office in Denver will be regional content managers responsible for a number of city sites.

When asked if this new model is in effect a new kind of competitor to traditional news websites, Sherrod said no, he sees this as a different kind of local media that will attract a different audience. I’m not so sure about that. The sites also feature national and international news coverage, so they could serve as someone’s primary home news base.

But I do see the Examiners model as a way to get some pretty deep coverage of many niches within a community without spending much money. And I like the editorial oversight infrastructure model as a way to address the poor-quality-content issue that rears its head with citizen journalism 1.0 models.

Worth Exploring
It’s clear that newspapers have to change. They have to do more. They have to go deeper. They have to take advantage of opportunities afforded them by the Internet to cover and profit from niches within their communities. And do all that with shrinking staffs.

These and similar forms of “pro-am” journalism or “Citizen Journalism 2.0” may point the way to doing more with less, while leveraging blogging and citizen media trends in intelligent ways that give the public quality content, not unfiltered dreck. Equally important, they give something back to community members who choose to participate.

Such initiatives won’t replace traditional journalism, but they can complement it. More importantly, perhaps they can also bring some badly needed new revenues to the table.

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