Friday, April 12, 2013

A niche publication thrives within the New York Times

Loren Feldman, small business editor


Versión en español aquí.

A digital media entrepreneur has to think first of building a community. Doing that means offering not just information but answers, advice, help, understanding.

You have to know what your community needs. That is why Loren Feldman perks up when he talks about a five-part series on his blog in which a small businessman described how he almost ruined his business by mismanaging his Google Adwords account.

It was a drama and a mystery aimed at a particular audience, namely small business owners and professionals. The blog is called "You're the Boss: The Art of Running a Small Business," and it appears in the small business section of the New York Times's website. Feldman is the Times's small business editor.

An underserved audience

And although it is part of the Times website, it is something of an entrepreneurial venture in itself. It is a niche publication that has developed a loyal following in the past four years by targeting an underserved audience, namely small business owners and independent professionals.

It differentiates itself from its competitors (another important tactic for small digital entrepreneurs) by relying on bloggers who themselves are small business owners or advisers and understand the problems this audience faces.

Feldman is not allowed to talk about the number of unique users attracted to the small business section. And while he does not want to put too much stock in the number of Twitter followers as a measure of reach and impact, it is worth noting that his section's tweets have 227,000 followers at @NYTSmallBiz, not far behind the business section as a whole, which has 314,000 followers of @NYTimesBusiness. "I'm competing with the best journalists in the world, and I'm excited to show how well we're connecting with our audience," he says of these numbers. 

Focused on nuts and bolts

Feldman started the blog from scratch in 2009. He had considerable experience with the small business niche as an editor of Inc. magazine and then web editor for and

It was at Inc. that he met Jay Goltz, a Chicago-based entrepreneur profiled in the magazine. Goltz launched into a critique of the existing small business publications. He thought they weren't focused on the nuts and bolts that help business owners solve the problems they face every day. Goltz then proceeded to give Feldman dozens of story ideas that would be more relevant.

Most entrepreneurs know how to do two or three things really well, Feldman says, but they might have no idea how to pick a law firm or how to run a payroll system or how to run a marketing campaign in social media. 

Written by and for small business owners

So when he came to the Times, Feldman decided that most of the You're the Boss's bloggers would be business owners themselves describing their own problems and how they tried to solve them. They would chronicle their mistakes and ask for help. He started with four and now has 13. (The bloggers are paid for their work.)
He also edits the Times's weekly small business page, where a story is written by one of several free-lancers.  "We journalists never try to tell business owners how to run their businesses. Instead, we try to report -- usually in something of a case-study format -- the experiences of business owners in the hope that other owners will benefit from them."

Among recent examples: the pluses and minuses of having an employee-of-the-month program, which was one of Goltz's columns (they aren't useful unless employees know what the award means); how to handle a mistake in hiring, by Bryan Burkhart; and a five-part series by Paul Downs on how to pick a company to process your credit card transactions (it's complicated and can be costly). It was also Downs who described his mistakes with AdWords, often with painful frankness.

When the Times put up a paywall two years ago, Feldman says, the section lost 40 percent of its users. But since then, the section has regained all of those and grown considerably. To Feldman this means that visitors to the blog felt they had to read more than the 20 free articles a month (now it is 10) permitted under the paywall system. They were willing to pay for them.

A mirror of personal experience

I learned of the small business owner's thirst for specialized coverage when I made the transition from a large metro daily to editor of a small business weekly. While at the daily paper, if people I met socially learned where I worked, they invariably told me what they disliked about the paper. Typical comments were "your business section is PR for friends of the publisher" or "your football writer is an idiot" or "there are too many ads and inserts."

When I went to work for a small business weekly, people I met had nothing but praise for the paper. I was acutely aware of our faults and limitations, so at first I did not understand their enthusiasm. 
Later I figured out that our readers felt we were helping them in their businesses. Our listings of new office leases included potential new buyers for their products and services. Our lists of the largest companies in various industries were also good business leads for them.

By contrast, most business publications focused on the doings of large companies. We published information that helped the small business owner survive and thrive. That was the source of the passion.

For a writer like me, it was humbling to learn that lists and data were often more important to readers than my deathless prose. It is a lesson for other digital entrepreneurs: let the audience tell you what matters. Listen to them and they will listen to you. That is how you build a community.

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