'Niche' news may be a bright spot in the future of journalism

The newspaper industry has been hard hit recently, with layoffs at Postmedia, a strike by workers at the Halifax newspaper the Chronicle Herald, and the closure of newspapers in Nanaimo, B.C. and Guelph, Ont. But some news outlets are turning to alternate funding models and focuses to remain viable.

As newspapers struggle, journalism professor says some online publications are thriving

Postmedia recently cut 90 jobs and merged newsrooms in several cities. But some online newspapers have focused on alternative models to remain viable. (CBC)

When Kelly Toughill was nine years old, her family shared the morning newspaper that came to her house. 

Kelly Toughill of King's University says the future of journalism may be in serving niche interests. (
"I was looking at the comics and my dad was looking at the front page and my mom was looking at the business section and my brother was looking at the sports," said the director of the University of King's College's school of journalism.

But Toughill says the bundling of a variety of content is a failing business model. 

"We're going into niche journalism," she said. 

"Finding ways to serve people's particular interests is really where business models are working."

Finding a niche

The newspaper industry has been hard hit recently, with layoffs at Postmedia, which owns several Canadian newspapers, a strike by workers at the Halifax newspaper the Chronicle Herald, and the closure of newspapers in Nanaimo, B.C. and Guelph, Ont.

But some news outlets are turning to alternate funding models and focuses to remain viable.

Members of the Halifax Typographical Union walk the picket line outside Chronicle Herald's Halifax offices on Jan. 23, the first day of their strike. (CBC)
An example is the Ottawa-based online news site Blacklock's Reporter, which puts all of its content behind a paywall — but attracts readers through focusing on a very specific niche.

It's run by former CTV and CBC reporter Holly Doan, who first started working in the parliamentary press gallery in 1993. But now, Doan says her reporting staff avoids standard events like press conferences and question period, and they never cover news releases.

She says news from those sources is already available online for free.

"By misreading the internet and miscalculating the business as they did, the publishers have literally taught an entire generation that the profession of journalism is worthless," she said. 

And now, Doan says the only way to get people to pay is to offer something no one else is doing, which is why Blacklock's reporters cover things such as the incremental progress of legislation.

It's a topic that may not be of interest to many ordinary citizens, but is important to various institutional subscribers such as unions, business associations and academic libraries.

That access doesn't come cheap. Blacklock's Reporter charges $157 per year for an individual subscription, but $11,471 per year for users who distribute to a hundred readers or more — institutional subscribers, such as businesses, lobbyists, industry associations, unions and libraries.

Doane says the price is worth it to large organizations that need detailed information that directly affects them.

'We love our builders'

The free Vancouver-based online news site the Tyee takes a different approach, earning about a quarter of its revenue from readers who donate money.

"We love our builders," said Tyee co-founder Michelle Hoar.

Although about a quarter of its revenue comes from reader donations, 'The vast majority of readers just won't give,' said the Tyee's Jeanette Ageson. (David P. Ball/ The Tyee)
"When they give, they are covering the cost for themselves and many other people," said Tyee director of community development Jeanette Ageson.

"Because the vast majority of readers just won't. They won't give." 

Another quarter of their funding comes from advertising, and about five per cent comes from spinoff ventures related to paper's core business, such as what Ageson calls "master class" workshops, delivered by the site's reporters.

"They're sort of professional skill-building workshops, that we limit to about twenty people," she said.

The Tyee is also in the fortunate position of of having two ongoing investors — the Vancouver-based labour-affiliated investment group  Working Enterprises, and Eric Peterson and Christina Munck, who operate the Tula Foundation, a self-funded family foundation.

Together, those two investors provide just over half of the Tyee's revenues, according to its website.

The Tyee has been in operation for about 12 years, and hopes to eventually be self-sufficient, it says.

Upsides and dangers in niche journalism

Toughill said she expects to see more spinoff businesses coming from non-traditional media outlets. And on the whole, she said she's optimistic about their chances for success.

But she also said when it comes to the rise of niche journalism, there are two sides to the story.

"The upside is that I think we'll be better informed on the narrow topics that we choose to follow," Toughill said.

"But the danger is that we end up just having our own view of the world reflected back at us. And that is a danger."


  • A previous version of this story said the Tyee has been in operation for three-and-a-half years, and that two people participated in its master classes. In fact, it has been in operation for 12 years and up to 20 people take part in its master classes. Michelle Hoar was also not identified as the Tyee's co-founder in the previous version.
    Feb 01, 2016 4:36 PM ET