Washington D.C.’s New Media Landscape Is Niche

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

When young writers dream of becoming journalists, how many envision themselves writing for trade magazines like American Shipper and Onion World? I used to work at a tea company which bagged its own tea, and it always amused me when our new issue of a heavy machinery trade mag arrived in the mail. It turns out, those niche publications are now far more stable, and often more lucrative, than most of the mainstream papers and magazines. Why was I laughing? I had to work at a tea shop to make a living as a writer.

At The Washington Post, Scott Nover takes us to Capitol Hill, where reporters for niche publications now outnumber reporters for the mainstream publications most of us associate with journalism. These reporters have specialties, from agriculture to medical devices, and their work caters to specialists whose particular interests are influenced by what happens on the Hill, and who are willing to pay top dollar for niche news. Besides making certain types of information more expensive, how has this changed other aspects of the media landscape?

Mainstream news organizations in search of new revenue streams have also moved into specialized coverage and research. In 2017, Digiday reported that Politico Pro — Politico’s subscription-based news and intelligence service — had 20,000 paying subscribers and accounted for half of Politico’s total revenue. In 2011, Bloomberg bought the Bureau of National Affairs, a trade publisher, and rebranded it as Bloomberg BNA; Business Insider launched Business Insider Intelligence in 2012.

When industry is the primary audience, the priorities for reporters can be different from those of mainstream journalists. Ferdous Al-Faruque, who goes by Danny, works for Medtech Insight, an industry trade outlet published by the British company Informa. “A large part of our audience are medical device companies. So their regulatory officers, their CEOs [and] various executives will read our stuff in order to know what is FDA thinking, what is FDA doing, how does this impact our business,” he told me. “The way I always try to remember this is if my articles are not, in some way, making money for the medical device industry, I’m not doing my job because what I write needs to somehow fill their business strategy.” He stressed, though, that the approach doesn’t guarantee favorable coverage. “Even though we might lose a major client because they don’t like what we write … we have to do it because it’s not about them,” he says. “It’s about our credibility.”

Some observers argue that the growing ranks of the trade press do contribute, albeit indirectly, to broader accountability journalism. At an Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in August, Usher and her colleague Yee Man Margaret Ng presented their research on social-media conversations between trade journalists in D.C. “What these trade folks are doing, especially on Twitter, is raising [the] alarm when [an] alarm needs to be raised,” Usher told me. “Or they’re covering something in a way that allows more mainstream … journalists to basically survey a sector they would otherwise not pay attention to.”

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