When starting from zero in journalism go for a niche site serving a narrow news interest well

In 1994 we would not have advised beginners in journalism: start your own trade magazine! Here in 2014 I do advise something like that.

26 Mar 2014 6:29 pm 8 Comments

My colleague Lisa Williams speaks of narrow comprehensiveness— “everything about something.” Keep that image in mind.

When people entirely new to it ask me what’s the best way to get going in journalism — if you are starting as an outsider, with no credentials or experience — I always give the same advice, and I know other people give this advice too. It’s obvious enough. Start a niche news service on a subject some people care a lot about. (He did. Now he hosts a show on CNN.)

One of the best niche sites I know is Search Engine Land by Danny Sullivan and crew. It goes for the granular on search engine news. That’s a tight subject some people care expansively about. There has always been a trade press that carried “niche” news, so that’s nothing new. But in 1994 we would not have advised beginners in journalism: start your own trade magazine! In 2014 I do advise it: a niche site that serves a narrow news interest well.

Of course, it does not have to be a “site.” It might be a stream, ‘cast or mobile-first feed. “Research it first. Then try to build your own niche news product from scratch.” — the advice, updated. I don’t know why others recommend it. My reasoning: Most everything you learn in trying to serve a narrow but interested news niche is elementary instruction in online journalism.

The solids. The basics, like… It’s a two-way transaction between niche users and journalists. Metrics tell you what’s working, but only to a point. The audience knows more than you do on some subjects so be social, ask for help and correct quickly. People love watching “niche” video if you can find some or make it. Your headline counts hugely in whether good work spreads, but it won’t turn bad work to good. Niche audiences are demanding. If you don’t have your reax post up, if you don’t live blog the big events, they will stop relying on you for coverage they want. That’s bad. If you have the data and make it easier to use, people will come to you. No matter how good you are, you have to promote your stuff…

And so on. These are a few of the simple virtues and basic lessons that a good niche blogger acquires by building a service from scratch. You don’t need permission to do it. Initial investment: less than $1000 for design, hosting. It’s a free country, a free press. And at first, you will probably be doing it for free.

Building a niche site is hard work, turning it into a business harder. But it’s a plausible route for someone starting from zero. An extreme example of it working:

The reason Henry Abbott started writing a blog was simple: It seemed like the only viable route he had to being a sports writer.

That was almost a decade ago. Now the founder of the NBA blog TrueHoop will be taking over the reins of basketball coverage on ESPN.com.

The second reason I give this advice is explained well by Ben Thompson in his post, FiveThirtyEight and the end of average. Read the whole series and it should clarify the “shifting media landscape” argument for “…start a niche site that serves a narrow news interest well.”

Part 1: FiveThirtyEight and the End of Average
Part 2: The Stages of Newspapers’ Decline
Part 3: Newspapers are dead; long live journalism

Ben did the larger context well. Why should I repeat it?

A third reason I give this advice: it just happened. News Deeply, the company started by Lara Setrakian, a former ABC News correspondent… publishers of the flagship project Syria Deeply, a “single subject site” that combines journalism and technology to better cover a complex, ongoing story… said it will give birth to Arctic Deeply, the same idea “deeply” spread over a second, and different kind of niche: what’s happening to the Arctic as climate change overtakes it… all sponsored by the World Policy Institute, a New York-based think tank with this mission.

After you build your niche site, see if you can build a niche site generator. That’s what Lara Setrakian is up to with her company, News Deeply. “Everything about something…”

Finally, I try to practice niche journalism a bit at my specialty site, PressThink: “Current events in the way American journalism explains itself to itself.” That’s the niche you’re at now. When something lands that is dead center for the niche, you do a round-up post, in which opinion at key points around the discussion field is sampled and the writer takes a view. That’s niche blogging 101. Last week Nate Silver debuted the new FiveThirtyEight for ESPN, and with it an essay laying out some of his pressthink. That event is dead center for this site.

So here’s my round-up post: Review and comment on the launch of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com for ESPN. More than most readers want. But it wasn’t made for them, was it?


such great advice… and so many good niches… excellent way to be visible in case you want land a full time gig, but good in interim to practice craft and connect with future sources.

Hi, Jay —

I remember us talking about this, and your immediate question was, “Have you written anything about this?” I hadn’t. Now that I read this, how do you think it relates to the 100% Solution that you outlined for local?

“Narrow comprehensiveness” is actually one of four tests I apply to any project I take on. One of the problems is that there are really too many good ideas — but which ones should you do? Unless an idea passes all four of the tests, I don’t do it. Since very few things pass all the tests, it’s very clarifying.

You actually zoom by two more of the tests:

You don’t need permission to do it. Initial investment: less than $1000 for design, hosting.

One of the other four tests is, “What can I do without anyone’s assistance or permission?” If step one is “get a venture investor” or “find a coder”…it might be a good project idea. It’s just not a good project idea for you. It’s too far away from your network & native skills.

You point at another one of the tests here:

It’s a free country, a free press. And at first, you will probably be doing it for free.

…but IMO, this doesn’t go far enough. Another one of the four tests is: “Don’t do anything for free that you wouldn’t do for free indefinitely.” Startups are hard. There are a zillion easier ways to make money. If it doesn’t pass this test for you, you don’t love it enough. If your thought process is, “Well, it will be really hard and unpleasant for X undefined period of time but then at some future date we’ll get tons of users/traffic/money and things will be fabulous,” you don’t love it enough to justify the suffering involved in a startup.

I jotted down all four of the tests here: Four Tests for Startups

Now that I think about it, this approach teaches one more thing: how to design the box, not just make individual pieces of candy. A lot of journalism training is focused on making individual candies (articles, segments for broadcast, infographics) but very little is trained on the box.

What is the appropriate mix of things? What goes on the lid of the box? Are there enough people who would buy this assortment? Is it the right size? How does it get from me to the eventual consumer? & etc.

Question: Can you say more about the idea of creating a “generator?” How to expand to those “niches next door” without diluting your original enterprise? Perhaps the subject of another post?

Andy Donohue says:

I give similar advice and have tried to follow it myself as well. In my case, though, we had a benefactor that was willing to pay our salaries and help grow an organization from the start. Without that, I’m not sure how I would’ve been able to follow the advice. Do it for free? Maybe. But in school I was already consumed by the school paper and classes. After school, I was consumed by just cutting my teeth at my first job.

I wonder if this is something that can be structured as a class or part of a grad school program. Plenty of j-schools are starting hyper-local sites. Are there any that are creating a class of students that each have their own niche news site?


Dear Jay

The Australian media will likely follow the US and the UK in becoming increasingly politically partisan, according to ABC managing director Mark Scott.

Mark who many moons ago shared the same cafeteria with me at The NSW Parliament House, overlooking the Domain and priceless art gallery, managed to observe your entry in his speech:

“The web is offering through news and information, more specialist depth and engagement around narrower areas of interest. Jay Rosen, the other day, said that when giving advice to journalists starting out, he tells them to start a niche news service on a subject some people care a lot about, providing what his colleague Lisa Williams describes as a ‘narrow comprehensiveness.’”

PS: A courageous speech it is and you might be tempted to explore its impact on journalists Sown Under and beyond …

Best Wishes


One thing where you can start from scratch is just to simply start a blog, you can start with free platforms like wordpress or blogspot.

This i think is the best way to start a portfolio and once you get the hang of it you can pay for a domain name or hosting so your blog would have a more authoritative sounding name.

well, that’s my two cents on the subject of start from scratch….