The joys of niche journalism


So, I think it's probably fair for me to guess that almost all of you have no idea what my employer, Government Executive, does. I didn't either, until I started freelancing for them, and discovered that this magazine catering to federal employees had almost 80,000 subscribers and web traffic growing in the direction of half a million unique visitors each month. I just had no idea the audience was out there, because I never really bothered to think about it. But since I started covering federal workforce issues full-time, I've learned two things, one about journalism, and one about government.

1) Niche publications may be an increasingly important part of journalism's future, as long as the niche is of reasonable size. There are 1.8 million civilian federal employees, not including Postal Service workers. That's a huge market, and those readers are incredibly hungry for information about the conditions that govern their jobs.

And by narrowing down our beats, we get to do much deeper reporting than we might if we were at a publication that had a broader mandate. For example, my colleagues Robert Brodsky and Elizabeth Newell took the New York Times' story on AEY Inc., ran with it, and figured out the backstory behind how AEY got labeled a disadvantaged business, a status that proved crucial to the firm's success. The Times had the story of what happened, but Elizabeth and Rob figured out why.

2) What's going on in the federal workforce right now is drastically under covered. Huge numbers of career federal employees are about to retire, especially in senior leadership ranks, and hiring freezes in the 1990s mean there aren't enough people to move smoothly up the ranks to fill those vacancies. These circumstances are prompting a reform boom: federal agencies are working to streamline the hiring process, adopting alternate work schedules and telework policies, and developing programs in coordination with nonprofits like the Partnership for Public Service to reach recruits of all who wouldn't have considered federal service before.

But those efforts may be too late to prevent disruptions to federal services and federal agencies. Wonder why your plane is late? It's partially airport capacity, but it may also partly be due to a mass exodus of air traffic controllers. Has it taken forever for you to get a passport? The State Department had to shift junior employees to process applications. Upset about the U.S. Attorneys scandal? The complexities of the relationships between political appointees and career federal employees provides key context. More stories than I ever realized come back to the people who work in government.