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June 27, 2017, 11:07 a.m.
Business Models

With a revamped CityLab, The Atlantic is making a bigger bet on niche media

CityLab hopes to turn its focus on key urban decision makers into a compelling value proposition to advertisers.

For The Atlantic, niche media doesn’t have to mean small business.

CityLab, The Atlantic’s site focused on urban development and innovation, is getting a big redesign Tuesday, joining a more refined editorial mission and more ambitious business goals. The new site, whose coverage revolves around the core verticals of design, transportation, environment, equality, and city life, is designed to better reflect CityLab’s increased understanding of its core audience of urban decision makers and influencers. A second, larger core group is made up of readers with deep understanding of particular aspects of cities, such as design, transportation, and mobility. Members of both groups, while passionate about cities, have come to rely on CityLab’s reporting to do their jobs, which has long been a core pillar to successful niche media plays.

“We’re going to live or die by knowing that audience,” said Rob Bole, CityLab’s general manager, who was brought on last year to lead the site’s efforts to build out its own marketing, sales, and product teams — in effect, helping the site live on its own. “This was the moment to break free from The Atlantic, to see if it could grow as its own site and grow to a scale to be editorialally successful and profitable.”

CityLab is adding some new story types with the redesign: “Point of View” features will spotlight op-eds from prominent voices in the space, focusing on ideas about the future of cities. A series called CityFixer will take a solutions journalism approach, highlighting notable success stories in cites and giving decision makers actionable information on how to implement the measures in their own cities. “These stories are going to ask the questions ‘what works and why did it work?’ said Bole. “We’re very pro-city and we want to see success happen everywhere. We want to drive deeper understanding and usefulness for the readers.”

With this focus, CityLab is executing the classic niche media business strategy, which trades audience scale for a laser focus on the needs of a small subset of readers — including, in CityLab’s case, some city mayors and economic development directors — and a similarly focused cadre of advertisers looking to pay higher rates to reach them. For CityLab, creating a core set of loyal and influential readers lets it create a compelling value proposition for technology, infrastructure, and real estate companies selling solutions to a variety of city problems. (Silicon Valley, for example, represents CityLab’s biggest readership hub.) CityLab is betting big that a direct sales approach focused on its core audience will successfully drive its business: the site has no plans to sell its ad inventory programmatically and will instead focus on native advertising and custom ad units, both of which will drive more premium rates.

That focus on a core group of readers has, perhaps not surprisingly, resulted in a smaller overall readership for CityLab: The site had a little over 1 million unique visitors in May, which is down from 2 million at the same time last year.

Niche is not at all a new idea for The Atlantic’s parent company Atlantic Media, whose Government Executive Group runs niche sites like Route Fifty, Nextgov, and Defense One, which are written for decision-makers in various levels of government. The Atlantic is betting that now is a good time to reinvest in CityLab’s own niche approach. “Cites are at an inflection point,” said Bole. “They’ve become platforms for innovation, culture, and economic development.”

CityLab’s business team plans to capitalize on these trends in other ways as well, such as through its “Urban Workshops” live events, which will connect CityLab’s reporters with people in the real world.

At the same time, while niche media plays focus on a hardcore subset of readers, many also succeed when their coverage can resonate with some mainstream readers as well. For CityLab, this idea is reflected in the site’s Life section (formerly “Navigator”), which covers how people’s lives are changing in cities. This is the final, “social ring” of CityLab’s editorial strategy, which will focus on stories likely to resonate with a wider body of readers, such as “What L.A. can learn from its failed experiment in legalized street vending” and “The military declares war on sprawl.” A future series will also focus on how cities are changing what it means to be a neighbor. These stories will be written for “people who are passionate about cities, but not professionally as nerded out,” said Bole.

Photo of Chicago’s Marina City by cdelmoral used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 27, 2017, 11:07 a.m.
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