A new study out of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, Seeking the Single-Subject News Model, explores how hypertopocical sites are filling the gaps created when traditional newsrooms can no longer keep consistent coverage on more complex issues.

By Angela MacKenzie

In recent years, there has been a shift towards hypertopical news sites that cater to a niche micro audience. A new study out of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, Seeking the Single-Subject News Model, explores how these sites are filling the gaps created when traditional newsrooms can no longer keep consistent coverage on more complex issues.

The authors, Kristin Nolan and Lara Setrakian, consider the entrepreneurial journalist to be the agent of change in the rapidly evolving journalism landscape. They selected 20 examples of single-subject news sites for the study, including OpenCanada. Participating sites all had in-depth coverage, were narrow in scope, fact-based, independently funded and had origins online. They also had to be outcome-neutral, meaning their content was not advocacy- or outcome-driven.

“Since the ’90s when the Internet came into play there’s been a pretty substantial unbundling of the newspaper—which journalism people know very well,” Nolan told J-Source. “With sites like Craigslist or any site that takes away one of the sections of the newspaper, the news industry becomes decentralized.  Then there’s not as much of an ability to vie for advertising. It’s hard to compensate for that, but usually, entrepreneurial or citizen journalists step into that realm and fill those parts with single-subject news.”

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Nolan and Setrakian found there were many positive aspects to the increase in single-subject news sites. For one thing, digital journalism increases access to niche markets. With minimal production costs, digital journalists can reach a loyal audience anywhere in the world. Single-subject news sites can dramatically raise high-quality journalism and can also represent a return to public service journalism. 

Some of the sites in the study had foundation funding or were self-funded, but almost all explored alternative revenue streams. Even with lower startup costs, these sites tended to struggle with the question of how to be financially viable. The sites may receive foundation funding but many are self-financed or receive user donations. As a result, the boundaries of ethical fundraising are being tested. The authors note that publishers of single-subject sites still need to look to uphold objective and neutral journalism standards.

The study’s Canadian component, OpenCanada, is a site devoted to Canadian foreign policy. Its readership is an elite group interested in global affairs and foreign policy in Canada. Like some of the other sites in the study, OpenCanada is parented by and embedded within a think tank. It receives funding through the Canadian International Council for goods such as IT support and work space. For marketing support, OpenCanada began cross-posting with the Globe and Mail, which also helped to bring credibility to the site.

“I really do think that it’s an effective way to market yourself and grow your brand.” Nolan said. “One of our participants noted that it’s really effective but you can’t not pay for everything. Technologists have taken sharing as a way of getting free content and I think that’s true. If you share something through Facebook, no one cares what the byline is anymore—they just look for the information. When you stop caring about the byline, you have to regrow that personal brand or the name recognition, and then you have more of a chance of surviving the social media apocalypse.”

Study participants all faced questions of funding and financial viability. In spite of this, Nolan believes there will always be people who will do this kind of work for free. She also notes that it is dependent on the industry.

“Some of our study participants had much more success than others just based on their field matter,” she said. “And they were able to sustain themselves. But the million-dollar question is, ‘Who's going to fund our site or media outlet?’ Knight has done several good reports about this. I think it’s going the way of foundation and highly creative bendy revenue models where there has to be more than one stream. I think journalism in general hasn’t caught up to that bendiness yet.”

In Canada, however, such sites are less likely to receive funding from foundations than in the U.S. Nolan emphasized that although foundation funding is the leading source of revenue stream in the U.S. for these types of sites, there are other revenue streams that have also been effective.

“One of the most interesting things was that subscription and ad revenue were still part of that equation,” Nolan said. “Other options, live events, selling your expertise behind a premium at a pay wall, a lot of organizations have had success doing that.”

These are preliminary findings and a more comprehensive report is expected to be published in the spring or summer. The second phase will essentially amount to a best practices manual—a how-to for journalists, educators and anyone who may want to make a single-subject website.

“It will be a deeper dive into the impact different elements have on building digital journalism—monetization, organizational design, technology and community building,” Nolan said.

Nolan and Setrakian expect to see single-subject sites persist and grow through a mastery of their subject matter and combined reporting experience and startup savvy.

“News entrepreneurs, like any other entrepreneurs, need a combination of prowess, persistence and passion,” the authors concluded in their report. “We anticipate single-subject news will accelerate the trend of ‘unbundling’ the newsroom.”


Angela MacKenzie is a Montreal-based freelance writer as well as a graduate student and research assistant at Concordia University in the department of journalism. 



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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.