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Nov. 17, 2016, 9:29 a.m.
Business Models

Route Fifty takes a niche (but jargon-free) approach to covering innovation in local government

With a focus on how state and local governments use tech, Atlantic Media’s Route Fifty is another example of the value of a defined niche audience.

Atlantic Media’s Route Fifty isn’t a site that many people would want to read — and that’s exactly the point. Launched in April 2015, Route Fifty focuses on how state and local governments are using technology to solve big problems in budgeting, data, and infrastructure. It’s the classic niche site: obsessively focused on ideas that are hyper-relevant to a small but valuable group of readers.

That focus is everywhere on the site. One recent story covers Colorado’s efforts to develop a “vehicle-to-infrastructure” network that will offer drivers real-time updates on road conditions. Another story digs into how Minnesota is investigating an unusual flood of calls to its state health insurance marketplace earlier this month.

Many people would quickly click away from these types of stories, but for Route Fifty’s audience of government employees, such case studies and best practices can be essential. “We want our stories to be a resource for educating state and local government professionals and managers. And if those stories inspire others to pull from or adapt an idea that’s worked in one place, that hits on our public service mission,” said Michael Grass, Route Fifty’s executive editor.

Grass said that Route Fifty has set itself apart by focusing on the innovations of smaller state and local governments, rather than those out of “shining stars of innovation” like San Francisco and Austin. Smaller governments are typically limited by budget and resource constraints, forcing them to come up with more creative solutions to their challenges. “Tech and innovation doesn’t always easily scale down,” said Grass.

Some stories don’t touch on technology at all. A recent story, which Grass said gets to the heart of Route Fifty’s approach, focused on how “compassion fatigue” has complicated local governments’ ability to solve the homelessness problems in their cities. “Under the homelessness policy umbrella, compassion fatigue is not a very prominent sub-challenge compared to, say, housing-first strategies,” he said. “But it’s one that especially impacts part of our target audience, and is a challenge that is mostly off the radar screen in the larger discussion about homelessness policy.”

Route Fifty is the latest niche site to launch out of Atlantic Media’s Government Executive Media Group (GEMG), which has also produced Government Executive, Nextgov, and Defense One, which focuses on the defense industry. These sites overlap in both audience and mission by targeting “core decision-makers in government who are defining how the work of government gets done,” said Tim Hartman, CEO of GEMG. He said that Route Fifty launched at an important time. As cities change and modernize, they’re forcing governments to do the same. Many of these new advancements, such as the increased viability of autonomous vehicles, are uncharted territory for regulators and local government leaders, who often look to other municipalities for guidance on how to respond to changes.

These, in turn, are valuable readers for Government Executive Media Group’s advertisers, which are eager to get in front of the people who control government cash and are willing to pay for products and services that effectively solve their problems. Hartman offered the example of the chief information officer of a mid-sized city looking for way to store citizen data in the cloud. That’s music to the ears of, say, the salespeople at Amazon Web Services, which is a regular advertiser on Route Fifty. It’s an approach that’s worked well so far: Route Fifty has doubled its revenue since the beginning of the year, and increased its staff from three to five people since launch.

The niche media business model — create a small but focused audience and connect that audience with an equally focused set of endemic advertisers willing to pay top dollar for sales leads — has never been a very sexy prospect compared to the mass audience-based models of big sites like The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. But its virtues have become clear as of late, particularly as easy Facebook traffic has gotten harder to come by and an abundance of advertising supply has pushed prices down. For the likes of The Business of Fashion (fashion), Skift (travel), and Stat (health and science), going after a specific audience makes it easier to upsell them other products — including events. Route Fifty has taken this path as well. It will hold its first-ever Navigator Awards in Pittsburgh this week, celebrating 10 people in local governments who are doing good work.

Ultimately, while Route Fifty has focused on a small audience, it’s also found ways to cover some of its core topics — autonomous cars, in particular — to be palatable for general readers. It’s a lesson that the site learned from Defense One, whose robotics coverage regularly finds new life elsewhere.

Traditional niche brands have often focused on jargon as a way to prove their expertise to their audiences, “but that approach doesn’t drive engagement in anymore,” said Hartman. “What we find is that ideas that will define the future, presented in a very accessible, smart way, will drive engagement among the core audience — but will also help market the brand for itself by going viral and spreading to new people.”

Photo of Route 50 sign by Jack Edge used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 17, 2016, 9:29 a.m.
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