There are stories that just don’t lend themselves to virality. And they shouldn’t.
Some news organizations publish stories that don’t benefit primarily from widespread buzz, shareability, clickworthiness, whatever you want to call it. There is some journalism, primarily niche journalism — whether that niche is energy, or the auto industry, or, in my case, cannabis industry journalism — that matters deeply to a smaller group of people. But what is important is that the quality and depth of it matters very much. And, above all, so much so that readers are willing to pay money to ensure that they don’t miss out, because some aspect of their work or life depends on staying in-the-know.
This is a premise against which a rising number of news organizations, including my own, Cannabis Wire, are hedging bets. The Information, Politico Pro, and even Jim VandeHei’s new venture Axios are all among a rising number of niche news organizations investing in a future in which people are increasingly willing to pay a substantial amount of money for focused, contextualized, analytical information from nonpartisan sources. And that price can range from $400 a year, in the case of The Information, to as much as $10,000, in the potential case of Axios.
Cannabis Wire just released its first paid report, about legalization in California and how it would change the global industry, for $199. It was an educated experiment for my news organization which was, at the time, not even a year old. The question was simple: Will influential people who need this information pay for it? And they have. Our challenge, of course, over the last year for our news organization has been figuring out who those people are. Further, taking time to identify the needs of that audience, which can be as simple as mining newsletter subscriber data, can shape and inform a news organization’s strategy.
There are a number of cannabis stories I could write that would generate clicks. The best strain for your migraine. The best bong for your morning wake and bake. The best cannabis-infused balm for your mysterious, but persistent, skin rash. But when it comes to writing about regulatory turns of the screw that could have implications for the future of the multibillion-dollar cannabis industry — say, packaging requirements for cannabis edibles — the audience for that suddenly shrinks substantially. But the audience that cares a lot — the license holders, the investors, the regulators, the lobbyists — wouldn’t want to miss that small development, and would pay to learn about it in a newsletter or a report. This holds true in auto, in energy, agriculture, defense, and in many other industries.
And while large-scale social platform distribution makes sense for a number of publications to reach as many readers wherever they are on whatever device or platform, scale isn’t everything to everyone in the media ecosystem. Sometimes, like when it comes to cannabis and public health, opting for cheeky cannabis stories can border on reckless. And for those publications who offer a premium experience, or premium information and data, it will be important to zig where others are zagging, and an increasing number of news organizations will likely go that route. This doesn’t only involve subscription-supported sites. A number of news organizations, including many local news organizations, or not-for-profit news sites, aren’t fit to survive on scale; they will slowly find ways to maximize what is important to them, like community integration or impact.
All news organizations ought to focus on identifying their value proposition in an increasingly distributed world, whether it’s brand or voice or hard-hitting investigative journalism. Those that focus on a niche have a leg up, and they’re embracing it. Just a few years ago, opting for basic paywalls, let alone high-priced premium content, seemed an inadvisable move in the media world. But as ad-supported journalism, even at scale, has remained an unsure bet for longer than the journalism industry might have hoped, the time to leap toward building membership alternatives could not be better.
Nushin Rashidian is cofounder of Cannabis Wire.