Often, you’ll find yourself needing to cover news that appears across your competitors’ front pages as well. You can learn a lot about how to find and adopt a unique angle from what they do at niche news sites, like Chemistry World and FIN News.

There’s an old saying in journalism that even when things are hectic, it’s better to be right than to be first.

We dare to take this even further.

Looking at data research, the sobering reality is that roughly a third of news articles shouldn't have been made at all. They perform badly on all metrics. Bringing the correct facts to your readers isn’t the only aim: you must deliver the story your visitors expect, value and, dare we say it, need.

Research shows that social media platforms are becoming increasingly dominant in being creators of information, compared to news media. Moreover, the era in which the function of social media was simply to relay news from traditional media is over, as Ben Smith argues in his book, Traffic. The fact is that mainstream media are now faced with the challenge of how to distinguish themselves.

The participants

  • Editor Philip Robinson from Chemistry World was one of the participants in smartocto’s training project, User Needs Labs.
  • Matt McCue is founder and managing editor at FIN News, an American site that covers news on large financial institutions. He is an avid user of smartocto's Insights feature.

Both recently participated in a webinar (watch the recording here) in which they shared their method with those in mainstream media.

The charts & research

These three charts tell three really compelling stories.

  1. The art of leaving the ‘dead zone’ empty

The aim here is simple: write as few articles as possible that have no reach and no engagement. This is easier said than done, but we wanted to showcase this Quadrant Model report from FIN News, because they’ve demonstrated that they’ve managed to achieve this admirably. You’ll find the Quadrant Model in the Insights section of smartocto and it’s an invaluable tool to sharpen the editorial team's awareness of which articles, sections, topics, or user needs (in the tool you can swipe over the dots to reveal) are less popular than others.

2. Tagging articles helps sharpen focus - and content planning

At Chemistry World, embracing the user needs method has meant starting by effectively tagging their articles (in their case by what the main driver of the article is). This, in turn, has enabled the team to identify the kinds of articles they should be producing. Based on insights from the smartocto tool, they discovered that they needed more articles driven by emotion and action. Once these had been commissioned and published, they resulted in a bump in new visits. It's one way of driving engagement too.

3. Can chemistry be emotional?

What exactly constitutes ‘emotion’ when you manage a website entirely about chemistry, intended for an audience that is very interested in everything to do with chemistry? An example of this is the following article, written to fulfil the user need 'Divert me'.

In fact, we’ve seldom seen a better example of a ‘Divert me’ article, and it just goes to show that even when a driver feels like an odd fit for a brand, it’s worth pausing before dismissing it.

During the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry - a topic that would also be picked up by mainstream media - Chemistry World created a bingo card containing all the probable clichés that would come up during the ceremony. It’s distinctive - and their audiences are guaranteed to find it entirely relatable.

In the days surrounding that event, the appetite for Nobel content among our core audience is essentially limitless. We plan across topics, formats, and user needs to maximise engagement among our core readers and to catch the wave of interest that exists within the broader audience.

Philip Robinson editor @ Chemistry World

Finding your unique angle

There was also hardly any news outlet in the world that didn’t cover the news that Silicon Valley Bank went bankrupt, and there was briefly turmoil with questions arising about whether a domino effect, similar to that of 2008, was imminent.

For FIN News, very clear about what their audience understood, knew and wanted to know, it was clear that they could skip the initial headlines:

The first step is always going directly to attending or watching board meetings to see how the issue is being discussed at those meetings. By talking to venture capital firms about what they were hearing, addressing or thinking about, and what impact they had seen, we were able to provide a very specific view into the market you wouldn’t get from a larger media company.

Matt McCue managing editor @ FIN News

Some conclusions

  • Mainstream media must find their niche moments too - or visitors will likely question their value
  • Focusing on the implications of stories for your audience is always a good idea
  • User needs can help a mainstream website to find their unique proposition without leaving any topic behind
  • Update me stories serve different purposes for mainstream and niche sites

Philip frames the advantages of niche news sites:

“Chemistry World doesn’t have the scale or resources to follow events at the same rates and volumes as other newsrooms, so we have to choose our story points carefully. That means trying to keep our readers at the centre of our decisions: where can we add value for our readers and what matters to them? What do our readers expect of us? What is the impact on members of our community? Where is the chemistry?”

Matt’s summary on their role in the news ecosystem:

“We aren’t trying to be everything for everyone, which is often the case with larger, mainstream broad coverage organisations. By knowing our role in the ecosystem and being very clear both internally with our staff and externally with our subscribers about our value-add we are able to consistently provide actionable, timely information to our readers. What for many newspapers would be a “second day” or “third day” story can be our approach to coverage on the first day, essentially putting us ahead of larger organisations on what our readers actually care about.”