Media slims down: Publishers are building audiences in discrete verticals

This story first appeared in the spring issue of Digiday magazine, available exclusively to Digiday Pulse members.  Join the community and receive the full magazine here. almost made it to 20.

The decidedly internet 1.0 portal is in the midst of deconstructing itself, transforming from a search-driven one-stop shop into a mall of carefully run boutiques, part of a long-term shift away from the pursuit of scale at any cost.

Granted, media companies are still chasing scale, About included. But instead of one-size-fits-all sites, they’re increasingly launching single-subject verticals focused on advertiser-friendly topics like health, technology and food.

Everyone is getting in on the action: In the past few months, NBC News has launched three verticals: Mach (science), Better (health) and Think (futurism). The New York Times in the past year introduced verticals including Cooking, Well and Smarter Living, before acquiring The Wirecutter, a technology and gadgets reviews site. Even The Huffington Post, reversing a longstanding approach of introducing new sections under the HuffPo name, launched a social-first health brand called The Scope, and even a teen girl-focused newsletter called “The Tea.”

The rise of these sites points to a single thing: People want specialization when they’re searching for news and information, said Neil Vogel, the CEO of If anyone knows this, it’s Vogel, who has spent the past few years breaking up the portal into discrete, vertical-focused properties. The first three, Verywell, The Balance, and Lifewire, launched in 2016, and two more, The Spruce and TripSavvy, are on deck to launch this year. Once those two go live, one of the most prominent examples of a scale-driven, search-motivated business will cease to be.

“Nobody believed we were experts in 40 different things,” Vogel said.

Other mediums have followed this trajectory before. TV went from broadcast to cable, magazines went from general-interest to niche. As the internet has matured, its former lifeblood has gotten a lot thinner: Banner ads go for about 15 percent of what they went for two decades ago, so publishers are doing everything they can to get away from low-CPM programmatic advertising and try to sell advertisers directly on higher-ticket formats like sponsored content, native ads and video.

The hope of these publishers is that such vertical sites help with those conversations because they focus on one topic. The lifestyle nature of the content also means the stories have longer shelf lives than news.

“When you’re bound to the news cycle, it’s difficult to do those creative executions, and it’s difficult to get attention around those creative executions, said Nick Ascheim, svp of digital at NBC News. “This [vertical strategy] creates a slightly quieter environment for the advertising.”

But it’s not as simple as coming up with a new name and logo for coverage you’re doing already. Selling these sites well often requires specialized sales strategies or teams, a step that few of these properties have taken yet. While each of About’s new sites has distinct monetization strategies, for example, other publishers are simply having their existing sales teams handle them separately.

That may be because most of these sites are still too new to have big audiences. While a site like About can use domain-matching to retain the search engine credibility it’s built up over the years, others have opted to shelter these new brands in their home URLs and extend their reach through off-site distribution.

That works for advertisers who increasingly recognize there’s more than one way to meet their audience goals. “Scale can be achieved by finding the person they want to reach, and then touching them in various ways,” said Scott Donaton, chief content officer at Digitas LBi.

Even topics like health, tech or food are starting to feel too broad. That’s led some publishers to go even narrower. Witness Huffington Post’s foray into identity-based editorial brands on Facebook, including Canceled Plans, a community for introverts; and Tomorrow Inshallah, a community for millennial Muslims. In health, Vogel said he’s already seeing sites dedicated to specific diseases, like psoriasis and diabetes.

It’s too early to tell which will grow. But the driving force behind them all is clear: “The one-size fits-all approach just doesn’t work,” Donaton said.

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