An Unfettered Press

Targeting an Audience

By Marilynne Rudick


A look at the magazine racks at American bookstores and newsstands is a visual reminder of the enormous changes that have taken place in the media over the past 15 years. The size of display racks has exploded. The dozens of mass circulation magazines that Americans used to read have been overshadowed by thousands of publications geared to the specialized interests of readers.

Business and computer enthusiasts, for example, have PC and Byte. Those with home-based businesses can choose Home PC and Home Computing. Executives have Fortune, Success, and Money, as well as Chief Executive, Government Executive, Black Entrepreneur, and many more.

There are publications for almost every conceivable occupation and job specialty, as well as most leisure activities.

The focus on smaller niche audiences is not limited to magazines. It cuts across all media, including newsletters, newspapers, and broadcasting.

The American media trend toward serving special interests began about 15 years ago and took its cue from retailing. Instead of doing all their shopping in a large department store, American consumers began to shop at boutiques that offered specialized merchandise and knowledgeable sales personnel, says Torie Clark, vice president of public affairs at the National Cable Television Association (NCTA). The trend spilled over into the media, which began catering to the specialized information and entertainment appetites of American consumers.

In the magazine industry, says John Griffin, president of the Magazine Division at Rodale Press, Inc., niche publishing was a response to reader demand. The result was an information explosion resulting in thousands of new publications. In 1992 alone, almost 700 new magazines were introduced, according to the writer's handbook, Writer's Digest. Much of this growth was in magazines targeted toward lifestyle, parenting, fitness, food, and shelter.

But Rodale, one of the oldest and most successful magazine niche publishers, came about not because readers were clamoring for information, but because of the personal philosophy of the company's founder, J.I. Rodale. The company, which now publishes 10 health, fitness, and lifestyle magazines, grew out of Rodale's belief that American agricultural practices, which relied heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, were harmful. To put forth his philosophy of organic farming, J.I. Rodale launched Organic Farming and Gardening in 1942. Prevention magazine, started in 1950, expanded on his philosophy of healthy living by telling people how to stay well.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when America's enthusiasm for natural and healthy living caught up with Rodale's philosophy, the company had already been established as a leader in the field of healthy living, explains Liz Reap, assistant magazine publicist for Rodale. The company broadened its niche to include a focus on active sports. It began developing new magazines and acquiring ones such as Bicycling, Mountain Bike, Runner's World, Back Packer, and Scuba Diving.

In health, it expanded beyond Prevention, by launching Men's Health, then Heart and Soul, geared to the health concerns of African Americans. Because Rodale is so knowledgeable about health and fitness, it could see that there were holes in the market, explains Reap. For example, while there were many traditional men's magazines such as Playboy, Esquire, and GQ (Gentlemen's Quarterly), no one was addressing the health needs of men. Launched in 1986, Men's Health quickly took off, growing to 1 million circulation in 1994.

And newsletters can be even more targeted than magazines. While Rodale's Backpacker profitably targets 140,000 enthusiasts, a newsletter might target 1,000 backpack equipment manufacturers. There is scarcely an industry that has not spawned a newsletter, says Rebecca Evans of the Newsletter Publishers Association, whose organization includes 700 members who each publish from 1 to 60 newsletters. Each new trend seems to translate into a flurry of new newsletters. Current hot topics are on-line technology, the information superhighway, and health care reform. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) resulted in a host of new newsletters, says Evans.

Quick to jump on new trends is Phillips Publishing International, Inc., the largest newsletter publisher in the United States. Over the past 20 years, it has grown from a home-based business producing two newsletters to a virtual publishing empire of more than 60 newsletters. Started by Tom Phillips on a shoe-string -- $1,000 -- it now has yearly revenues of over $140 million.

Phillips's consumer newsletters focus on health and finance. For annual subscription fees of between $40 and $100, it offers monthly issues of newsletters such as Health and Healing, which emphasizes natural healing, and Cardiac Alert, which details advances in cardiac disease research and prevention. A group of financial newsletters includes Straight Talk on Your Money, featuring practical advice on everyday money concerns.

Subscribers to its consumer newsletters tend to be "those who take an active interest in their health or financial well-being. When they have a problem, they tend to seek help," explains Thomas Callahan, Phillips's public relations assistant.

Phillips's business newsletters, geared to senior executives, cover virtually every aspect of the telecommunications, banking, aviation, defense, and energy industries. The company's communications industry newsletters include Mobile Phone News, Satellite News, Video Marketing News, and Fiber Optics News. For the banking industry, it offers Banking Automation News and Credit Risk Management Report. The defense and aviation industries are served by newsletters such as Defense Daily, Space Exploration Technology, and Air Safety Week. Energy industry offerings include Oil and Gas World and Petromoney.

Busy executives pay between $200 to $800 a year for these highly focused newsletters, which may be published as infrequently as once a month or as frequently as daily. One of Phillips's newsletters, Cablefax, is delivered daily by facsimile technology.

Executives are willing to pay a high price, says Callahan, because the newsletters provide crucial information in a very accessible way. "An executive in the fiber optics industry isn't going to find the information he or she needs from mainstream publications. Our subscribers get it quickly, and it doesn't take much time to absorb....It's geared to somebody who does not have the time to pour over lengthy feature articles in a magazine. It provides the facts in a half-page or one-page article. It tells readers what effect the story situation has on their business."

Newsletters also appeal to subscribers because they normally are not advertiser supported. "It's not biased by who advertises," says Callahan.

Sandwiched into the media mix between magazines and newsletters are special interest newspapers. Supported by advertisers as well as subscribers, they are larger than a typical newsletter of 4 to 10 pages and have a shorter production timetable than magazines. While some niche newspapers are industry based (such as Variety, the daily newspaper of the entertainment industry), many are local or regional in nature. A growing number are city or regional lifestyle newspapers that offer alternative points of view to a mass market daily newspaper. Others are sports oriented, targeted toward specific sports such as stock car racing, or to supporters of local sports teams.

A growing group of specialty newspapers target the local business community, such as the 27 business weeklies published by American City Business Journals.

These business journals differ from national business newspapers and the business sections of city newspapers in focus. "We target small and medium-sized businesses, specifically people who own their own business," explains Bob Menaker, managing editor of the Washington Business Journal, owned by American City. "We try to cover what the Washington Post (Washington's mass circulation daily) does, but we cover it in a different way. We cover niches that the Post can't bother to get into -- such as who got what contract, who has been promoted, moved, or transferred....We see ourselves as a business resource....In every article, we ask ourselves, 'How can we help our reader?' "

Readers respond well to local business newspapers, says Whitney Shaw, vice president of American City Business Journals. "Most major markets now have a local business journal. It is an industry that was born maybe 15 years ago and is still growing rapidly."

While offering targeted information to readers, niche newspapers offer up a highly specialized and targeted audience for advertisers. "Advertisers love it," says Shaw. A computer firm, for example, that supplies office management software can be sure of reaching the small businesses it targets. "It's easier for advertisers to embrace the concept of target marketing instead of the scatter-shot approach (of advertising in a mass market publication), where they wonder, 'Am I reaching my audience? Am I paying for thousands of readers who I don't care about reaching?'"

The trend toward targeting special interest audiences is not limited to print media. The electronic media, particularly cable television, has embraced the concept of targeted programming -- a concept it calls narrowcasting, to distinguish it from television networks that broadcast to mass audiences. In the case of cable TV, narrowcasting was partially fueled by technological breakthroughs -- satellite technology that facilitated program delivery and increased the channel capacity of cable systems. Program entrepreneurs rushed to fill the newly created channels. Modern cable systems now deliver between 40 to 50 channels, and the technology promises a future where 500 channels, of entertainment and information are possible.

This technological revolution came about at the same time that program executives were finding that "not everybody is interested in the same 10 broad categories" of programming, but that "a lot of people might be interested in a particular category," for instance sports, food, fitness, or public affairs, says NCTA's Torie Clark.

Since the late 1970s, when the first cable entrepreneurs began offering movies and sports events on dedicated channels, program networks have targeted virtually every special interest. A cable subscriber, who typically pays $30 a month, gets a package that includes about 40 channels of specialized programming from some 100 program networks now available. (Subscriber revenue supports 35 percent of the program costs; advertiser fees, 65 percent.) A typical cable system might offer its subscribers the following:

  • ESPN: a mix of live sports events, a sports news program, and lifestyle and fitness programming. A second sports channel, ESPN 2, targets a younger audience (18- to 34-year-old males) and entices them with sports such as volleyball, surfing, and skydiving.
  • BET, Black Entertainment Television network: movies, sports, family programs, talk shows, news, and information targeted toward African Americans.
  • CNN, Cable News Network: 24 hours of news programming, including analysis and talk shows, and a second channel of briefer, "headline" news.
  • C-SPAN 1 and 2: two public affairs channels that feature live coverage of the U.S. Congress and related hearings and programs.
  • GALAVISION: Spanish-language movies, novellas, sports, news, and children's programming.
  • LIFETIME: programming geared to women.
  • MTV: a music video channel targeted to a teenage audience.
  • SCI FI Channel: movies and TV series featuring science fiction and fantasy.
  • COURT ROOM TV: live coverage of public trials and related programming on legal issues.
  • A & E, Arts and Entertainment network: featuring arts, mysteries, and biography series.

Filling in the program mix are a glut of competing movie channels, a variety of home shopping networks that allow viewers to order merchandise by telephone, and a host of regional and local sports channels.

These existing services face fierce competition from programmers clamoring for channel space for newly conceived channels that focus, among other things, on golf, fitness and health, game shows, history, fashions, and home and garden programming.

TV viewers have responded enthusiastically to the concept of narrowcasting. In 1983 and 1984, when narrowcasting was in its infancy, mass-market broadcast networks were watched by 69 percent of American TV viewers, and cable only 3 percent. By 1993, cable had captured 30 percent of the audience, reducing the audience for broadcast network TV to 53 percent.

In general, says Clark, subscribers feel the money they spend for cable programming is well spent. "People feel if it's a topic they are particularly interested in, that they are getting their money's worth."

Whether called niche publishing or narrowcasting, the concept of targeting specialized interests has changed the landscape of American media. "People have a limited amount of time that they are going to spend on information. If you identify areas of information that matter to people, they are willing to pay for it," observes Whitney Shaw.


Marilynne Rudick is a Washington-based free-lance writer.


The American Press

Constitutional Protection

The Right To Know

Editing the Washington Post

The Small-Town Newspaper

The Business Side of a Newspaper

Rights and Responsibilities

Libel Law in the United States

Minorities in Journalism

The Electronic Media

The Sweet Sound of Conflict

The Business of Radio Broadcasting

On the Air in Springville

The High-Tech Trib

Electronic Newspapers

The Center for Foreign Journalists

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