Silicon Prairie News proves a model for strong niche coverage

Silicon Prairie News comes to mind when I think of thriving examples of new-age media. The Omaha-based online news publication covers technology, business and startup news in the Midwest, and has built a pretty remarkable niche audience. I started work as a contributor and student editor for the publication in Columbia, Mo., so I may be a bit biased, but I think SPN is a great example of what 21st century publications should be doing for a number of reasons:

1. Audience generated content increases readership and loyalty among audience.

Traditional newspapers cling to the idea that the Letters to the Editor section is the only suitable place for readers to express their thoughts. I’m not arguing that papers completely abandon this notion or this section of the paper by any means, but I do believe that comments in the Letters to the Editor section fit into very limited categories: Either a reader’s comment severely criticizes or overly praises a news story.

Silicon Prairie News highlights audience opinion by giving reader’s their own “Contributors and Guests” section. In one opinion piece last month, the cofounder and CEO of a company called Zapier contributed an article called, “Why we fly home to mentor at Startup Weekend every year.” SPN gives these experts a place to be “thought leaders,” or in other words it gives community members a place to give advice, build community and promote both themselves and the publication. Every expert contributor, in turn, becomes a regular reader of the website, and they spread the word about SPN wherever they go.

2. Community building is just as important as news.

Many news websites post a calendar of local events; however, most don’t plan a slew of their own events to fill that calendar. Every year SPN executes a number of community speaking and awards events in Omaha, Des Moines and Kansas City. The speaking events function sort of like a locally-planned TED Talk would; The publication invites established entrepreneurs from across the country to speak about their success and businesses. Past speakers have included leadership from reddit and Marc Ecko. This year’s annual Silicon Prairie Awards event recognized notable figures and businesses in 12 categories such as Startup of the Year and Startup Executive of the Year. The publication also posts a weekly job board to list open technology job opportunities in the Midwest.

Readers of SPN don’t just come to the website for a story that interests them (although they will find that too). The website has become a resource for inspiration, jobs, connections and news. By becoming all of these things in one, SPN has become an essential part of the reader’s day.

3. Give the audience what they want.

Silicon Prairie News has a very strong definition of self. It isn’t going to give you news in a traditional, AP stylized, formulaic package. This is perhaps what I admire and (initially) feared most about SPN when I began my work for them this fall. For years I have been taught to follow a formula when writing news. There was even a structure in my head of how to write the most flexible stories of all: features. I quickly learned that SPN’s stories work because they have a voice in a way that isn’t calculated or predictable.

SPN readers aren’t looking for 5000 word stories with unnecessary detail. The startup community is creative, fast paced and exciting. The content on SPN is written exactly as this community functions. Most post are between 300-500 words. Some stories have one source. Some stories are only quotes or bullet points. Many of the first sentences of stories make me laugh out loud. Most of the pictures and videos paired with stories are from the interview sources (again a community-building technique). For example, this post on a Kansas City startup called CandyCam incorporates many of the techniques. The post summarizes the important information in an engaging way and includes a really great multimedia video piece to give the viewer more details. Overall, the posts feel conversational, and because of this, SPN feels like a world I am a part of, and not a news site I occasionally browse at a distance.

The year before I joined SPN’s team, I had been in a bit of a journalism slump. I tried reporting for various publications as an freshman journalism student at the University of Missouri. None of them felt right, and I was discouraged by how dispassionate I felt about writing. I was writing stories without the audience in mind, and I felt out of touch with the craft I had loved so much in high school. Now at SPN, I am more excited about journalism than I have ever been. I am not only writing about the startup community in Columbia, but I am quickly becoming a part of it.

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