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Sept. 21, 2011, 1:30 p.m.

How niche is too niche? The case of gay news blogs

Why a defined and loyal audience may not be enough to keep some niche news sites afloat.

According to David Carr, niche news sites have the edge in the media world: “Giant ocean liners like AOL and Yahoo are being outmaneuvered by the speedboats zipping around them: relatively small sites that have passionate audiences and sharply focused information.”

As it turns out, though, niche isn’t always profitable. Take gay news sites and blogs — which should be perfect illustrations of booming niche sites that can monetize off a predictable and loyal audience looking for news and information it can’t find elsewhere. It’s possible, it seems, to be too niche for advertisers. Consider the following:

  • Even backed by corporate owner LOGO (which is in turn owned by Viacom), the long-standing news site will shut down on Sept. 30. As editor Jennifer Vanasco noted, “LOGO has shifted its online strategy and so the site is closing.”
  • Gay news blog Bilerico let go of its managing editor and is down to a single employee running the show.
  • Queerty, a site that was one of the top 50 political blogs on Technorati, shut down for weeks this April after its business development partner decided that gay niche blogging was unprofitable. It has since been unable to truly recover.
  • Pam’s House Blend, a site that also broke into the ranks of the top 50 political blogs on Technorati every odd year or so had to transition from an independent site to a larger, corporate progressive site this year.

Whether corporate-run or one-man shops, the outlook for gay news blogs is that most of them are not turning a satisfying profit.

Yochai Benkler, in the The Wealth of Networks, argues that corporate consolidation cannot, and will not, become a dominating force on the web because people congregate around specific clusters and communities that they are interested in. But this seems to break down in practice. Even with corporate consolidation, niche sites may suffer, and niche sites themselves generally can’t support their own activities.

Blogger Bil Browning, of Bilerico, contends that the problem isn’t establishing the niche; his audience is fine, he says. And Daniel Villarreal of Queerty said that, before the April shutdown, his blog’s audience was within striking distance of The Advocate’s traffic.

For a long time, gays were seen as a lucrative advertising market — that is, if your company was willing to be caught advertising to a gay market. The image conceived of by advertisers (and welcomed by gays), as Katherine Sender chronicles, was of single gay men with lots of disposable income that they were ready to pour into lucrative goods. While there’s evidence that LGBT population as a whole doesn’t resemble this image much at all, image, when it comes to ad buys, image is generally what matters — so what’s the problem?

Again, there’s the question of how niche is too niche. Among the potential business-side problems for gay news sites:

  • They’re too political, too news-focused and not entertainment-focused enough to be considered a place to advertise by, say, Skyy Vodka or online dating sites like Manhunt.
  • They’re too culturally specific for big advertisers to want to advertise on them. Advertisers might assume they have to design a special ad campaign targeted at gays, for instance. Or that it’s just not worth the trouble of having a whole gay community investigate a company’s practices as they affect the LGBT community.
  • Unless you can combine sex appeal with news, you lose out on the “fun” advertisers think gays are going to sites for. (To combat that problem, one of the successful gay news blogs, Towleroad, has taken to interspersing pictures of hot gay men, entertainment stories, and the like with its more serious news content — resulting in what Bil Browning has described as advertising that “is men in their underwear splashed all over the page.”)
  • The way advertisers take on their niche ad-buying strategies can hurt gay sites. Instead of advertising directly on those sites, for example, Human Rights Campaign will go to Google ads instead of banner ads. It’s easy micro-targeting without all the hassle of having to work with individual sites’ business development staffs. HRC gets a deal; the sites, however, get pennies.

Gay news sites may have a unique set of problems because of advertising hesitation. Still, their uncertain future may indicate that, even with a clearly defined niche market and a reliable audience, niche isn’t always the answer to capturing online revenue.

POSTED     Sept. 21, 2011, 1:30 p.m.
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