Photo credit: Dhaval Dani, Creative Commons/flickr

Every Publication Has Its ‘City’

So how to best serve it?

Ever consider how The New York Times only so often writes about its titular city and state, New York?

The Times is, for all intents and purposes, a national (or probably more accurately, an international) outlet, covering national and international events. Still, its city is the Big Apple. We can think of that in two ways. First, the paper is headquartered in New York. And secondly, its contents reflect the informational demands of the powerful people and international audience that call America’s biggest city home.

This is true at smaller outlets, too. The Boston Globe really is New England’s news source, but its city is Boston; the going-ons across the region — and the nation, of course — have an effect on the average Bostonian.

I know. This isn’t totally right. In the case of any metropolitan newspaper, part of the reason they hunt for content outside their local boundaries is because good reporters trace good stories, and also because competition is a real thing in the world of journalism.

But it is a useful paradigm for thinking about the readerships that publications serve.That is, every niche interest can be seen as a “city.” And every niche publisher, which puts most of its efforts into producing content that applies to said niche, is likely to publish some content that is only relevant because it’s also of interest to that readership.

I originally heard this idea floated by a former colleague, the award-winning magazine designer Patrick Mitchell. The example he used in a conversation over the summer was the hybrid sports/pop culture website Grantland.

When ESPN launched Grantland in 2011, the idea of publishing sports and pop culture content side-by-side seemed sort of odd. But the site, to say the least, has been very successful, drawing major names in sports and culture writing into its fold and accruing a vast and loyal readership. So what gives?

A typical sampling from Grantland’s homepage.

Pat suggested that the pairing makes perfect sense when you think of Grantland’s “city” as sports fans. Sports fans love their sports, but in most cases they reserve some time for movies and TV and music, too. Grantland, then, exists to serve Sports Fan City by producing sports content while also producing peripheral that might be of interest all the same to that readership. No doubt, the passions and abilities of Grantland’s editor-in-chief, ESPN’s long-time pop-culture-loving columnnist Bill Simmons, played a role in structuring the site as it has been structured. But thinking of Simmons as a powerful citizen of Sports Fan City helps to even better illustrate the metaphor.

This can obviously be extrapolated, with new media and old. Rolling Stone’s political coverage helps serve Music Fan City. Mashable’s chief constituency could be called Social Media City, but that doesn’t stop its writers, editors, and producers from covering anything happening on the Internet, in technology, and often, in the news. Business Insider…well, you get the point.

Again, this city-based perspective doesn’t necessarily factor into why publications publish stuff that at face value doesn’t seem to fit within its stated coverage area. Competition for clicks probably plays a much bigger role in these decisions than any sort of geographic metaphor. But it does help to understand why this kind of publishing works. Just because somebody lives in a given city doesn’t mean they don’t have interest in what’s going on, y’know, over there.

This was part of the mindset when my team and I got cracking on building Yester.Yester, at its core, is a history publication, meant to make history content fun and digestible. To that end, you might think of its city as History Buff City. We’d certainly welcome that constituency. And we think we’ve served it well so far, from our sweeping looks at the political and cultural forces that led to events as prominent as the Gunpowder Plot to the Kennedy assassination, to our quick glimpses at events buried in the nooks of history (such as Australia’s Great Emu War, yoga’s history of violence, and the alleged witch who escaped Salem).

Still, we know our city, and sometimes history buffs just don’t need to know about something that happened years ago. Sometimes, they might need a reminder not to talk politics at Thanksgiving dinner. Or they might want to take a virtual hike in the North Korean mountainside (because virtual’s probably about as good as they’re going to get). Or they might benefit from some tips in how to best perform in a game of Risk. They might be curious what their favorite baseball team’s uniform would look like if they played in the English Premier League.

Our readers (knock on wood) will keep coming back because we can be home; we can be History Buff City. But they’ll really feel at home because we aren’t all history all the time. And that’s because, buffs though they may be, they aren’t either.

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