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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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 365gay.com 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.

                                   
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  • http://www.kevinbondelli.com Kevin Bondelli

    I think you’re spot-on with the business-side problems. I’ve noticed that political news sites in general often have a harder time luring niche advertisers. The niche sites that seem to have this draw are those that directly involve products: a blog that reviews stationary products, photography sites, a genre of video games, etc. You see the same situation on Klout, where the influencer offers are based both on Klout score and topic influence. You rarely see offers for people influential in news or political topics. Most are for technology, travel, food and wine, etc.

  • http://twitter.com/mattoperry mattoperry

    Reliable audience?  Isn’t the gay press in decline?  I’d love to hear more specific numbers around the size of this audience.

    Born as they were out of the late-60s gay lib movement, many original gay publications are (aren’t they) facing a declining or aging readership.  The Washington Blade?  Gone!  Even The Advocate curtailed its publishing in 2009.  As a gay man born in the 70s, I can tell you (somewhat guiltily) that I simply don’t read the gay press, nor I wager do many gay men my age or younger.  With the mainstream press and blogosphere no longer afraid to cover things like prop 8 and don’t ask/don’t tell (and to do so with all the fairness and arguably more  journalistic skill than the gay press), much of the urgency around having a gay press at all is sort of gone.  

    I’m sure there will be many who disagree, but I bet there are just as many who think the same way.

  • Anonymous

    As someone who has been editor-in-chief of two gay newspapers, currently publishes a website, and has sold internet advertising I can tell you that sites targeting only the LGBT audience will never make significant money.  Gay print periodicals rarely made much money.  There’s no reason moving online will change this.  The audience is simply too small and not geographically concentrated.  There are many great reasons to write, edit and publish for gay audiences.  Making a ton of dough isn’t one of them.  

  • Ben Patrick Johnson

    Thanks for writing this piece. Those of us in advertising and journalism have struggled for years to monetize the LGBT audience and you are correct, per my experience, with the challenges you list. It’s ironic that while we are seeing the contraction you speak of, Huffington Post will go live with their Gay Voices section in October. (I’ll be writing for them. hehe)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=693667396 John A Keith

    A lot of the “news” on these sites are retreads of news actually reported on by other news sites, like the AP. How many times to you have to read the same article about Rick Santorum?

    There’s only so much commentary one can handle. All these sites have GWM pontificating about the topic of the day. I like to read columns where the authors have the same opinions as I do, but I only have so many hours in the day.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=21709916 Phil Reese

    As the Manager of digital initiatives at the Washington Blade (http://washingtonblade.com) sitting at my computer at our offices right now, I can say with quite a bit of certainty that we are certainly not gone at all. Same staff as before, same voices. In fact we’re back in almost every distribution location we were previously in in the DC area, we are back to the pre-Window Media page numbers of the print edition, we’re cited often in publications throughout the US (read the Washington Post or Politico, let alone most gay blogs on days after a big LGBT news story, you’ll see us linked). 

    We even have an iPhone and Android app, we have a popular Foursquare Brand Page where we turn the weekend’s local arts and entertainment events into “to-do list” savable tips, and collect the week’s big events in a popular Foursquare list. 

    I can tell you we still break news that the mainstream press ignores until we do, and that the blogosphere does not have the resources to break. Our extensive and in-depth coverage of a recent rash of trans-related murders in DC were distilled to mere footnotes in mainstream papers until the gay press shed the light on this concerning pattern that it deserved. I can assure you, having been linked to myself from many mainstream media outlets, while they may be less afraid to cover LGBT news, they still often take their cue from LGBT publications. Look closer at those Wall Street Journal, New York Times and LA Times pieces on LGBT stories you’re reading on the web. Who are they linking to? They’re linking to the deeper, original reporting in the gay press. 

    Papers like Bay Area Reporter, Bay Windows, Windy City Times, Gay City News, Between the Lines, Dallas Voice, Georgia Voice, Philadelphia Gay News, Frontiers LA, and so forth are still first on the scene, still investing the resources into digging to the center of LGBT stories, still in the box at your corner, and now accessible digitally in so many ways that is still so needed in our community. 

    Anderson Cooper and Joy Behar may be willing to give five or ten minutes a few weeks to interviewing a lime-light hungry celebrity about a passing gay story, but that doesn’t mean that the mainstream press has replaced the gay press. A single phone call to a college student who protested Prop 8 for an hour on a Saturday does not in-depth journalism make. 

    The LGBT papers put the shoe leather on the street to do the real reporting that these mainstream outlets rely on once we’re done. I love the Post and CNN as much as the next journalist, but you can’t compare what they’re doing with LGBT stories with what the LGBT papers do tirelessly for our community 24-7, 365. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=21709916 Phil Reese

    As the Manager of digital initiatives at the Washington Blade (http://washingtonblade.com) sitting at my computer at our offices right now, I can say with quite a bit of certainty that we are certainly not gone at all. Same staff as before, same voices. In fact we’re back in almost every distribution location we were previously in in the DC area, we are back to the pre-Window Media page numbers of the print edition, we’re cited often in publications throughout the US (read the Washington Post or Politico, let alone most gay blogs on days after a big LGBT news story, you’ll see us linked). 

    We even have an iPhone and Android app, we have a popular Foursquare Brand Page where we turn the weekend’s local arts and entertainment events into “to-do list” savable tips, and collect the week’s big events in a popular Foursquare list. 

    I can tell you we still break news that the mainstream press ignores until we do, and that the blogosphere does not have the resources to break. Our extensive and in-depth coverage of a recent rash of trans-related murders in DC were distilled to mere footnotes in mainstream papers until the gay press shed the light on this concerning pattern that it deserved. I can assure you, having been linked to myself from many mainstream media outlets, while they may be less afraid to cover LGBT news, they still often take their cue from LGBT publications. Look closer at those Wall Street Journal, New York Times and LA Times pieces on LGBT stories you’re reading on the web. Who are they linking to? They’re linking to the deeper, original reporting in the gay press. 

    Papers like Bay Area Reporter, Bay Windows, Windy City Times, Gay City News, Between the Lines, Dallas Voice, Georgia Voice, Philadelphia Gay News, Frontiers LA, and so forth are still first on the scene, still investing the resources into digging to the center of LGBT stories, still in the box at your corner, and now accessible digitally in so many ways that is still so needed in our community. 

    Anderson Cooper and Joy Behar may be willing to give five or ten minutes a few weeks to interviewing a lime-light hungry celebrity about a passing gay story, but that doesn’t mean that the mainstream press has replaced the gay press. A single phone call to a college student who protested Prop 8 for an hour on a Saturday does not in-depth journalism make. 

    The LGBT papers put the shoe leather on the street to do the real reporting that these mainstream outlets rely on once we’re done. I love the Post and CNN as much as the next journalist, but you can’t compare what they’re doing with LGBT stories with what the LGBT papers do tirelessly for our community 24-7, 365. 

  • Nikki Usher

    I’ve been really trying to do some academic work in this area for a while. I’ve had a hard time quantifying things like audience numbers (Rivendell has a State of the Gay Media report they seem to put out every few years) . I tried to do a set of profile pieces on different gay news organizations going through change but simply lacked the data, and the blogosphere is so diffuse – so many blogs, hard to track, and if someone who does network analysis cares to help, we’ll be able to know a lot more about gay blogs, the intersection of mainstream media, and perhaps more about gay newsrooms in transition. If anyone wants to contact me, see my bio or check my website http://www.nikkiusher.com.

  • http://www.facebook.com/GayMarketing Thomas Roth

    I loved this article, and the comments from various perspectives are right-on. CMI fielded our 5th Annual LGBT Community Survey with over 30,000 respondents this summer, and a large part of the study covers media consumption. 

    We compared gay men vs. lesbians and three age cohorts. Interestingly, LGBT-focused websites are nearly as popular as mainstream sites across all groups. Not surprisingly, print LGBT publications are read by 50% of older gay men vs. 33% of younger gay men, and LGBT blogs are read by 43% of younger gay men vs. 26% of older gay men. But as we can see from these stats and the article above, readership does not necessarily a business make. 

    From our own experience working with clients and prospects over the past 18+ years, very few companies still (now in 2011!), bother to explicitly ask for our business. That hurts our ad-sales-dependent media.

    On another note, in focus groups we have found repeatedly that LGBT consumers do appreciate companies that advertise in LGBT media, and brand loyalty is a strong element of our decision-making process. LGBT consumers know that without ads, their information resources would disappear. Therefore advertising in LGBT media has a deep resonance and yields bottom line results. 

    Anyway, there’s tons of juicy media (print, web, mobile) info in the report, and anyone can access and download it for free off of our website. Use the link below. Happy reading. http://www.communitymarketinginc.com/gay-lesbian-market-intelligence/

  • http://www.facebook.com/GayMarketing Thomas Roth

    See my comments below yours, and download our report. You’ll find it interesting. http://www.communitymarketinginc.com/gay-lesbian-market-intelligence/

  • Pam Spauldling

    Corporate Blog? I don’t get a paycheck from FDL. And I think the term “gay news blogs” is vague, as I’ve mentioned frequently to my readers, Pam’s House Blend isn’t a news service and never has been, it’s a community blog, we don’t have a budget or paid staff to cover news in a broad way, and our original reporting (we do have it) is almost always limited to the area that we can cover on no budget. And we do break stories on occasion. But based on that alone,  I wouldn’t want to call that a “news site” trying to stay afloat. The largest threat to blogs like PHB is that it’s not about revenue (wish we had it, but we don’t), but simply that the authors hold full time jobs and it’s more about burnout.

  • Steve

    PHB is a good example of a professional looking and compiled site that visitors probably think is raking in cash for the owners. I thought I was alone! I have published the GAYtoZ.com Directory online in the UK since 1995, for many years holding down a full time job and working on the web site as a ‘hobby’. And as the LGBT community has become more asymilated, our competitors have become more mainstream. Today my main competitors are Google, the BBC and national newspapers and magazines.

  • http://www.facebook.com/markelderkin Mark Elderkin

    Gay Ad Network has teamed up with over 300 gay and lesbian publishers/bloggers to aggregate a large LGBT online audience to more effectively compete with Google and mainstream publishers.  For most publishers, we are able to generate a significantly higher net CPM than Google, since we sell custom placements, targeted display campaigns and sponsorships on hand-picked sites.  We sell the unique value of running on the best LGBT sites and we optimize campaigns based on individual site performance.  We represent a number of successful LGBT sites that (1.) are growing their audiences and (2.) using site designs that are optimized for national advertisers; fewer ads per page and more “above the fold” and custom placements.  

  • Joe Clark

    Fix the HTML in the posting and try explaining why the article didn’t bother mentioning Joe Jervis’s unpleasant, harmful, but widely-read site.