Sharon J. Riley reporting on inactive oil and gas wells in Alberta for The Narwhal. Photo courtesy Theresa Tayler.

How speciality news outlets pivot to cover a single story

Niche publications find COVID coverage boosts readership

H.G. Watson and Cherise Seucharan  - June 15, 2020

Welcome to week three of the Indie Publisher. Thanks for joining us! If you’re liking what you’re reading so far, subscribe below or forward this article to someone else you think may enjoy it.

Soon, I’ll be sending out my first mailbag edition, where I answer questions about media entrepreneurship from readers. No question is too big or too silly — fire away. Just make sure you get your question to me by June 17 at the latest! (If questions come after, I’ll save them for a future newsletter.)

Today, I’m handing the reins over to Cherise Seucharan, who found out how publications with a speciality niche — be that a topic or location —  pivoted their editorial plans in response to COVID-19, and how that has impacted their engagement and revenues. 

Thanks for reading,

H.G. Watson
Senior Editor, Indiegraf


Niche publications find COVID coverage boosts readership

By Cherise Seucharan

Media outlets that specialize in topics that don’t have a clear connection to the COVID-19 pandemic — like sports, the environment or fashion — are facing an entirely new challenge. As a single story dominates our lives, how does a niche publication stay relevant?

Outside Magazine’s new coronavirus section is testing the best bidets and publishing guides on meditation for people struggling to stay indoors. The Athletic, no longer able to cover sports games, is focusing on the impacts of the lockdown on teams and players, in the midst of significant layoffs. As-yet-to-be-launched The 19th, a digital magazine on gender and politics, has maintained its original launch date but is re-focusing on how the pandemic impacts women.  

When COVID-19 hit, B.C-based The Narwhal, a non-profit magazine focused on environmental investigations, decided to put publication temporarily on hold in order to take stock of how they could best serve their audience. 

“The Narwhal doesn’t have an obvious role to play in covering a global health crisis,” wrote managing editor Carol Linnitt in a widely-read piece. Instead, she wrote, they were going to focus on sharing well-reported news on the pandemic, and contributing analysis when it fit. 

But a month after publishing that first announcement, co-founder and editor-in-chief Emma Gilchrist said things shifted once again, as the way that COVID-19 is impacting the natural world became  clearer.

“Before there just wasn’t a lot of oxygen left for anything else,” Gilchrist said. “But we didn’t fully imagine that COVID-19 was going to end up touching on all the topics that we cover.”

Gilchrist said in April that The Narwhal is beginning to dive back into non COVID-19 coverage, with plans to put some larger investigations back on the publication schedule.

Despite their pause and not covering COVID-19 specifically, they actually saw a “distinct uptick” in readership starting in mid-March, coinciding with an overall increase in Canadians reading sources of news. The sudden need to be informed, coupled with the increase in time spent at home likely drew in new readers, said Gilchrist.

The Narwhal also pivoted on a membership campaign planned for late March. 

“We were planning to do a membership drive around then on a different topic, and then when COVID-19 hit we decided to kind of pivot and make it more related to the moment,” she said. 

The drive resulted in over 200 new members. As a perk for joining, new members were sent their annual print edition, a “quarantine read” which Gilchrist said garnered positive feedback from readers. 

And with 30 per cent of their funding coming from readers — and the rest from grants — The Narwhal has not seen a major hit to their funding so far.

Some other speciality media organizations have seen success by going deeper into local reporting. The Capital, which produces in-depth stories on politics and crime in Victoria, is taking advantage of their unique position as a news startup to pivot direction.

Editor Tristin Hopper said that the media outlet put larger stories on hold to report almost exclusively on local, pandemic-related news — which has resulted in attracting many more local readers.

They have gained approximately 20,000 newsletter subscribers since mid-March, coupled with a spike in opens, which are now at about 50 per cent.

“Suddenly, all these people [in Victoria] were realizing, I wonder if I can go to work or if I can take the B.C. ferries — there’s all this local news to worry about,” Hopper said.  

“I think we’ve just been able to take that cohort and put them in our wheelhouse, and now we have to work very hard to keep them there.”

The pandemic has also led to more news collaborations as outlets rethink their strategies.

Hakai Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jude Isabella, said that continuing with their planned publication schedule seemed “kind of tone deaf” once the pandemic began to ramp up. Typically, the online magazine focuses on in-depth coverage of coastal ecosystems.

But by mid-March, the small team at Hakai Magazine had temporarily merged with The Tyee newsroom over Zoom to report daily stories on the pandemic — a huge change for a team used to longer, deep dives which can take weeks or months. 

Hakai is funded by the Tula Foundation, whose founders, Eric Peterson and Christina Munck, also provide funding for The Tyee — so the partnership was a natural fit.

“It was unusual for us in terms of that fast news kind of treadmill that we were on — but it was really fun,” said Isabella.  “It gave us a sense of purpose, and we were able to provide readers with some of the news I think they wanted from their local publications.”

Isabella said that Hakai’s readership has continued on an upward trend they’ve seen since launching in 2015.

By mid-May, Hakai was returning to their regular schedule of in-depth coastal stories, something Isabella said readers might have been  yearning for after weeks of pandemic news.

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