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“The only way to succeed is through niches”: Jacob Donnelly doubles down on specialist media

Morning Brew’s Jacob Donnelly is of the firm belief that the days of generalist media are behind us, and that the future belongs to specialist interest audiences belonging to defined niches. And don’t mention BuzzFeed or Vice.

In an impassioned presentation at FIPP World Media Congress 2023 this summer, Morning Brew’s Jacob Donnelly reiterated his belief that the days of generalist media have now been superseded by a focus on niche communities and specialist media.

My belief is that going forward, the only way to succeed in the media is through niches. Unless you’re the New York Times, you are not going to succeed going forward if you don’t have a very clearly defined understanding of who your audience is.

Jacob Donnelly, Publisher, Morning Brew; Founder, A Media Operator

Donnelly’s quotes come at a time when the previous decade’s generalist superstars – here’s looking at you BuzzFeed and Vice – have fallen spectacularly from grace. BuzzFeed is a particularly cautionary tale having reached the dizzy valuation of $1.5 billion in 2021 after it went public via a SPAC. Since then it’s been a snowball whistling downhill, with Bustle’s CEO Bryan Goldberg needing to buy a particularly large pickup.

I just bought a f—ton of BuzzFeed shares at $6. If it goes lower, I’ll really back up the truck.”

Bustle Digital Group CEO, Bryan Goldberg, talking to CNBC

He backed up the truck – BuzzFeed shares now stand at 42 cents. As if to add insult to injury, following the closure of BuzzFeed News in April, CNBC wrote that, “BuzzFeed’s predictions for 2023 and 2024 currently look like pipe dreams.”

As for Vice, let’s not go there.

Niche, Niche, Niche

According to Donnelly, the future belongs to media companies focusing on specialist content that speaks to defined audiences, “If you don’t know who is behind why you’re creating content, you’ve got a real problem. Niche media is picking a lane and knowing exactly who is the consumer of that content.”

At FIPP Congress, Donnelly referenced several companies who focus on community media, but he highlighted one which had connections with a speaker that had preceded him on the Congress stage.

“We had Recurrent Ventures up here before. Every one of their publications is niche, and they all have a very specific understanding of who wants that content. And as long as you understand that you have a great business.”

How this content is expressed – newsletters, podcasts, events, etc – is less important than the fact it is delivered to a defined audience. In fact, even print was singled out by Donnelly as having a bright future, “I think magazines are actually very uniquely positioned to excel over the next 10 or 15 years. Okay. Maybe not only as a print product, although I think that’s also starting to work a little bit more.”

You go look at the newsstand. You’ve got a Boating magazine. If you like boating, you go there. Niche has worked in the media for decades. And that’s what we’re going back to. So I actually think that magazines, if they can overcome their cost structures and their financial burdens, and can start to actually invest in more great content, are gonna do fine”

Jacob Donnelly, Publisher, Morning Brew; Founder, A Media Operator

“If you’ve picked the right niche, like if you pick boating as your niche, some people might leave and others will come in. But people who like boating are going to always like boating and they’re going to display similar behaviours. So I don’t think that your editorial strategy should inherently follow people if they evolve outside of what that core content focus is.”

A final word of warning

Donnelly finished his presentation in Cascais with a warning to the media execs present – keep myopically focused on your readers, and don’t chase the money, “If you’re on a hamster wheel of raising money, you’re going to fail, because you lose sight of what matters. Your customer no longer is your reader, your customer is your investor. To have a successful business, you need to serve the customer and that is your reader.”

And in a thinly veiled swipe at BuzzFeed and Vice, he concluded, “You cannot build a media company and not be profitable.”

Mx3 Leadership Report: Media for Interest-Based Communities

MediaMakersMeet, the organiser of the annual FIPP Congress, is proud to release its latest Mx3 Leadership report, Media for Interest-Based Communities.

Topics covered in-depth include the growing importance of specialised communities, the revival of personalised media, and the huge potential in doubling down on lucrative niche audiences.

The report contains insights from many of the speakers who presented in Cascais, Portugal, including Bonnie Kintzer (Trusted Media Brands), Reid DeRamus (Substack), Tav Klitgaard (Good Tape and Zetland), and Rafat Ali (Skift) – as well as Morning Brew’s Jacob Donnelly, Innovation Media’s Juan Señor, and Tow Center for Digital Journalism Fellow, Damian Radcliffe.

Click here to access the free report