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The Future of Journalism Is Tiny, Targeted, and Timely

What news startups can learn from those targeted ads in your Instagram and Facebook feeds

Phillip Smith
Apr 2 · 9 min read
Credit: normaals/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A couple of years ago, I started to notice how well I was being targeted by advertisements on Instagram. The perfect travel pants, epic kitchen knives, glow-in-the-dark undies. “I would buy any of these things! How do they know me so well?!” I would exclaim. I became fascinated not only with the targeted ads, but with the advertisers themselves — many of them being what are now referred to as “microbrands.”

Microbrands are goods or services that typically are:

  • Sold exclusively online (not in retail stores or on Amazon)
  • Composed of just one item, or a very small range of similar items
  • Targeted to a niche audience within a larger established market
  • Independently owned (not part of a traditional retailer or conglomerate)

While the worst of these companies — the “dropshippers” — are well documented, few have explored what microbrands offer for industries outside of fashion, beauty, health, and gadgets.

Screenshots: Instagram

As a media startup advisor, I search far and wide for promising strategies that will help build the future of journalism. As I saved dozens of these Instagram ads and researched the companies behind them, I began to wonder: What would these ads look like if they were for information products? What if a news startup used this same approach to deliver niche, highly targeted, low-overhead, just-in-time journalism?

The more I’ve investigated these ads and the brands behind them, the more I’ve come to believe they represent a growth opportunity for a new wave of journalism startups. You can glimpse the broad strokes of this opportunity simply by scrolling through your Instagram and Facebook feeds. Notice all the obscure fashion and wellness brands beckoning you with an eye-catching image, a captioned video, or a “how did they know me so well?” message that just begs to be clicked.

Blogging liberated reporters from the printing press, but it didn’t help them find an audience among more than a billion websites on the internet. For years, many in the journalism entrepreneurship space, including myself, have quoted Kevin Kelly and proposed that entrepreneurial reporters just need to find their “1,000 true fans.” But we rarely explained how to do that, other than the glaringly obvious advice to “create compelling content.”

In truth, it has never been easier, or less expensive, to reach potential fans. This is a game-changer for forward-thinking, digitally savvy journalism enterprises. The same techniques used by microbrands make it possible for anyone — not just the big brands or big newsrooms — to reach precisely who they want with highly targeted messages for very little cost.

Last year, media critic and journalism entrepreneur Jesse Brown observed that “building something from the ground up to suit the marketplace, to suit where profitability and sustainability is, is a lot easier than adapting something with all kinds of legacy costs into a sustainable model.”

I’m not proposing that we replace what’s been lost. I’m proposing that we build something new.

Jesse successfully used the internet, podcasting, and blogging to find his 1,000 true fans. Less than six years after launch, his media company, Canadaland, is estimated to generate more than $500,000 a year in revenue. Paying listeners contribute roughly half of these funds, and the other half come from corporate sponsors.

Microbrands give us a blueprint for how that experimentation is possible today in a way that it never was before. In fact, it’s now entirely possible to validate many aspects of a business model before launching the product. And it’s possible to pinpoint those 1,000 true fans and cost-effectively tell them about the product when it does launch.

So, what kinds of news organizations could take advantage of the microbranding approach? After asking myself that question repeatedly, I started to see the contours of an answer:

  • These would be digitally savvy journalism enterprises, adept at ferreting out where their audience members engage with each other online.
  • They would be nimble and excited about experimentation and metrics.
  • They would be revenue-obsessed and hungry to understand the numbers that make the difference between breaking even and profitability.
  • They would be part product company, part performance marketing company, and part journalism company.
  • They would be intentionally small.

I’ve been calling these new journalism enterprises “micro news organizations.”

The term “micro news” is hard to define because many local newspapers have reached near-micro scale as they’ve downsized. I was talking with a colleague recently about what it would take for a digital upstart to go head-to-head with a paper in a market of roughly 250,000 residents.

I joked, “So you’re going to start with 25 reporters on day one?”

They replied, “No, we’re planning to start with a dozen, which is what the local paper has today.”

As the industry has shrunk, the lines have blurred. For the sake of this post, I’ll define a micro news organization as one with fewer than six reporters. You may say that a newsroom with six or fewer reporters will not replace what’s been lost. You would be right, and others have said the same. However, I’m not proposing that we replace what’s been lost. I’m proposing that we build something new, something quite possibly better than what we’ve had. Or, at a minimum, something that gives us what we need.

Imagine for a moment a swarm of niche sites focused on local news and information: one focused on real estate, another on development, arts and community events, technology and startups, sports, government and crime, and so on. Each is its own site that covers a niche aspect of the community, and each goes deeper than the local paper ever could because it’s not trying to aggregate “something for everyone.” Could this potentially add up to something more than its component parts? Could it lead to coverage of communities and conversations not represented in the local paper?

I believe one of the best bets we have is a bottom-up, small-is-beautiful movement of thousands of micro news organizations.

I’m not proposing that these micro news organizations will replace the New York Times, Washington Post, CBC, BBC, or other legacy media outlets. However, as they have demonstrated time and time again, small digital upstarts can have an outsize impact on the national news conversation. Their fresh perspective and close relationship with the communities they serve allow them to provide new kinds of value to readers.

“Small is beautiful” is not a new idea. And yet it’s new to hear the likes of media titan Rafat Ali, founder of paidContent (which he sold for millions to Guardian Media), say that it’s his “evangelizing function” in life to preach “that small matters and that small can make a large impact.”

A company like Ali’s Skift, with 60 staffers and revenue of $10 million last year, is not exactly a micro news organization. Yet I believe the lessons of Skift scale down. In fact, Brian Wieser, a senior media analyst at Pivotal Research, tells CNBC: “A publisher that aspires to be really high quality and small can also have a great business, maybe with lower risk in the long run.”

This opportunity to develop right-sized newsrooms lines up with my own research. As I spoke with dozens of reporter-led news startups across the United States and Canada, it became clear that these nascent business owners do not intend to grow beyond a relatively small size. They are unanimous in their focus on delivering quality over volume.

When I think of my own experience working in a micro news organization for almost a decade and all that has been accomplished in that newsroom’s 15-year journey — the stories the reporters continue to break, how they move the conversation on key issues, the relationships they build with readers — I have faith in this model. I believe being small is key to their success. Their newsrooms feel alive and everyone is engaged.

Let’s bring this back to the lessons microbrands provide for micro news organizations. If I were starting a small, digital-first news or information effort today, here are the tactics I’d experiment with:

  • Using tools provided by Google and Facebook to generate audience size estimates for a given region and reporting topics. (I’d use this as a proxy for the possible market size around a given beat.)
  • Estimating the cost to reach users on those platforms — using search and social advertising — to determine if the market is highly competitive (costly) or less competitive. (Even without a product ready for launch, I would run small campaigns to test the cost per click or per lead.)
  • Developing content packages — “think guides” to specific topics — as a way to tag interested people and to reach them again when we publish new content on the subject. (Yes, this is known as “retargeting,” but it can be done in less yucky ways than what you’re used to seeing.)
  • Creating lead capture opportunities aimed at establishing a direct relationship with readers via email and SMS (with the aim of getting off the platform addiction as quickly as possible).
  • Driving traffic to those lead captures using social and search ads (keeping a close eye on the cost per conversion to email address), knowing that the size of an organization’s email list is a decent proxy for reach and potential revenue. (I’ve read reports of microbrands achieving monthly revenue between 50 cents and $4 per subscriber, depending on the market.)
  • Using social proof to drive awareness of the brand at first. Depending on the focus of the newsroom, that might mean putting your reporting directly in the hands of community mavens — elected officials, church leaders, social innovators — and encouraging them to share it with their networks. Or, it might mean working with social media influencers to reach a younger demographic.

And that’s just the beginning. There are all kinds of ways to build just-in-time journalism products around the real information needs people have. Each of these moments presents an opportunity to deepen the relationship and strategically earn revenue not just once (as with a monthly membership), but several times. Information packages, databases, guides, courses, seminars, and events each offer a chance to deliver value to people, demonstrate the role of journalism, and ask for the sale.

Some laughed when BuzzFeed announced its foray into hard news in 2011. Since then, BuzzFeed has become a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and has won numerous prestigious awards for its reporting. The same is true for micro news organizations: At first, the media industry will laugh. They will deride these micro organizations as “toys” incapable of having an impact on the industry’s larger problems. And then, as the micros learn to work faster, better, and more collaboratively, they will take a bite out of larger fish in the pond.

Whether this prediction is right or wrong, I believe the time for these experiments is now. The industry is paying more attention to local news, and investors have committed more than $1 billion to fixing what’s currently broken.

I still believe one of the best bets we have is a bottom-up, small-is-beautiful movement of thousands of micro news organizations. For the bet to pay off, however, journalists and news organizations must collaborate in unprecedented ways — both with other newsrooms and with their communities. I believe this is the best investment for anyone in journalism today. Where would you put your money?

Phillip Smith

Written by

🔥Digital product developer. Media startup advisor. Journalism philanthropist. JSK Stanford Fellow ‘18. Mozilla Sr. Fellow ’17. Certified Lean Stack coach. 💪

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