While generalist outlets fight for survival, a new type of news brand is taking over the Internet—the verticals. Before the digital era, verticals were just called news sections. It was as simple as that. With the print product, the reader would go through the whole paper—call it New York magazine, for example—before turning its attention towards its preferred section. The Internet blew that product up. Readers were no longer getting the complete daily product, but their preferred part, consistently. With social media, the user sets up who to follow and which publications to read. As such, he/she can altogether avoid any topics that deviate from his/her interest. There’s no need for them to scroll through a generalist news publication when they can turn to a more specialist outlet. Whether this situation enhances the so-called confirmation bias and induces an ever more polarized society is for another post.
In this cutthroat environment, generalist news organizations have two options: become the most influential generalist brands in the market—The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post,—or play the game and separate their content into verticals. Many are choosing the latter, and it’s working wonders.
Dotdash, previously known as About.com, is the perfect example of how vertical niche content works. The news organization was in its utmost decline until a team turned around in 2015 by dividing about.com’s content into dozens of verticals that did not allude to the parent news organization. Now, as reported by Fast Company, Dotdash is flourishing. It owns popular niche publications such as the finance site Investopedia, the travel outlet TripSavvy, and the tech title Lifewire. You may scroll Investopedia to understand the Financial Times or read Lifewire to use your smartphone better, but you probably won’t know they belong to the same company.
When the team turned the company around, they probably thought long and hard about how people access news. They either go on Google and search for a topic—in which case the algorithm shows the most relevant, specific, and engaging content—or they go directly to a news site they know—in which case most people will go to an established brand like The Times. With that in mind, the reasoning is simple. If you can’t compete with established media powerhouses, then go for the system. Verticals can leverage the current search mechanisms—mainly Google and social media. If their content is specific enough and there’s sufficient online traffic—a large number of readers asking the same questions,—the niche content will show up on top of the search. Specificity is about branding, but it’s also about creating a loyal customer base and playing the content distribution system.
Moreover, niche publications work because they adapt to their customers’ immediate desires (read Quartz, what to change when the market’s changing). For example, Investopedia is a dictionary for investing terms that goes straight to the point. You don’t go to a generalist news outlet to understand how a bond operates, you go to Investopedia. So far, the strategy is proving to be successful. In 2018, Dotdash’s revenue grew by 44%, with a business model based on advertising and e-commerce.
Although it could be argued that all generalist news publications have differentiated their sections in the past—the Times has different Twitter accounts for all its sections,—the differentiation has never been so evident. Actually, generalist news publications for which the generalist brand remains more relevant than the vertical are few. They include the traditional media outlets in the country—as mentioned before, the Times, the Journal, the Post, and the New Yorker, but also the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times, and others. For them, the parent publication’s name is still more recognizable than that of its sections, both offline and online. But that’s certainly not the case for Dotdash. It’s also not the case for other prominent news outlets like New York magazine, which is following the vertical approach.
Last year, New York magazine made a strong push to differentiate its verticals online. When someone is reading The Cut, New York magazine’s vertical for lifestyle and fashion, they don’t explicitly say they are reading the magazine. They say they are reading The Cut. The vertical’s identity is so differentiated online that some online readers perhaps may not even know the vertical is part of a more significant parent publication. Furthermore, The Cut even has its own logo, displayed on all its social media account, and its own voice—different from Vulture, New York’s entertainment vertical, or Grub Street, its food and drinks vertical. However, and interestingly enough, the print edition of the magazine displays its verticals as its news sections. The conclusion? The old print issue needs some tweaks to succeed online.
Verticals and niche publications have another advantage—their loyal customers. As readers turn to specialist outlets, they are also more willing to sign up for their newsletters and try out their subscriptions. They might think it’s easier to find generalist information for free without even looking for it—you get it on Facebook, WhatsApp, radio, Twitter. In contrast, you have to follow your tech outlet, your media vertical, or your fashion publication to find the information you need. For that reason, they engage more with their preferred niche outlets, especially online, creating a community. For verticals, online presence matters. Plus, when the message is simple, sweet, and to the point, it’s simpler to get it out there, more natural to form a community around it, faster to get people excited and willing to pay.
Verticals will become more and more common in 2020. News outlets will not only differentiate their content, but they will also look for known names in the field to promote it—for example, the Time’s podcast The Daily with Michael Barbaro.
In the era of social media and Google searches, specificity wins. But not all is lost for not-so-big brand names as this year verticals might end up bringing the people they need to the parent-publication. Readers will come for their interest; they might stay for the package.