The Wall Street Journal goes deep with niche coverage strategy

It’s hard out there for a general interest site. The economics of the Web rewards publishers that either go huge or stay niche — and squeezes out anyone caught in the middle.

The Wall Street Journal sees an opportunity to stay broad but go specific as well. Last week, the site launched Logistics Report, a vertical site focused on the global story of trade and transportation infrastructure. The effort, staffed initially with five, has included coverage of train horn blast problems in Savannah, Georgia and why furniture companies such as Ashley Furniture and La-Z-Boy are taking control of their supply chains.

“It’s very focused. That’s kind of the point,” said Wall Street Journal business editor Dennis Berman, who oversees the section. “There are tens of billions of dollars at stake with these questions. If we can combine our general audience expertise and our specific subject matter expertise, most of the time we get it right.”

Logistics Report is the latest in a string of vertical Wall Street Journal sub-brands, the first of which, CFO Journal, launched back in 2011. That launch was followed up a year later with CIO Journal, Risk & Compliance Journal in 2013 and the marketing-focused CMO Today in 2014. The verticals, which appear under the C-Suite in The Journal’s business section, are aptly named, given that CFOs, CIOs and CMOs are, while a relatively small group, top of the list of decision-makers that brands want to reach.

The shift from general interest news to more specific coverage is an inversion of the usual playbook publishers follow today. The likes of Refinery 29, The Verge and Business Insider have ditched focus for scale, and have broadened out their coverage to reach more people and bigger brand advertisers.

With Logistics Report, however, The Wall Street Journal has opted for focus — all in the hopes of reaching a very specific, well-heeled group of endemic brands. UPS, its launch sponsor, is supplementing the site’s articles with its own sponsored content series, some of which was written by WSJ Custom Studios, its native ad unit. Berman said that going focused also improves the value proposition of the C-Suite newsletters, whose open rates average 40 percent.logistics

“The advantages of these things are many and outweigh the disadvantages,” said Empirical Media managing director Steve Goldberg. “Moving from specific coverage to general interest is significantly harder than moving from general interest down to a specific one.”

But just as covering both Internet memes and hard news leads to some unfortunate juxtapositions between the riots in Baltimore riots and stories about Disney princesses, as seen recently on BuzzFeed, covering deep, wonky topics alongside general interest news comes with its own set of challenges. CIO Journal Report, for example, often digs into heady topics such as software-defined networking, which can be hard for the average person to understand.

“If they only did that, I would think that it’s a failure,” Berman said. “If they could do that and do pieces that explain what software-defined networking is and why it’s important, that’s the right calibration for what we’re doing.”

Competition, too, is an issue, both from outside The Journal and from within it. Five-person CMO Today, for example, competes with the likes of Adweek and AdAge, which have much larger editorial staffs. (And also Digiday.) But focusing on media and marketing also risks encroaching on the turf of the Journal’s other reporters, whose coverage areas overlap. A recent story about Twitter’s advertising struggles, for example, carries the byline of reporters from both CMO Today and Wall Street Journal proper.

Berman said that The Journal has figured out the right balance. “In the beginning there was this internal separation and questions about what is this strange thing was that was growing inside of us,” he said. “Now it has been pretty well-integrated.”