Here are two seemingly unrelated anecdotes about news features:
- The Arizona Republic sent a befuddled film critic to watch and review the Love Live movie. The critic responded by reviewing the moe hit poorly, noting he was very confused. Some anime fans complained that the critic didn’t have the necessary context to review the film properly and his opinion shouldn’t be taken seriously.
- I wrote a feature for Anime News Network about building Gundam models. It was my most basic tutorial yet, designed for people who have watched Gundam anime but know nothing about building models. Despite stating this in the article, I still received several comments critiquing the narrowness of the piece, observing that it didn’t cover panel lining, painting, or any other more advanced model building concepts.
In both of these cases, the critics had some good points except for one little consideration: neither of these articles was written for the critics. Both news articles were directed at a narrower audience than the one they got, and received a divided reception because of it.
If you’re on my blog, chances are you’re either a writer or reader of niche reporting: journalism about and aimed at a pretty specific smaller audience. We like niche reporting because more general news can be tone deaf or even ignorant when addressing our favored niche. What we neglect to realize, however, is that not everything that is written about our favorite topic is written with us in mind. Sometimes it’s the opposite.
Just because the film critic wrote about Love Live doesn’t mean he was writing for an audience of Love Live fans. The critic made it pretty clear that fans would find it “possibly enjoyable,” unlike himself. As anime critic Mike Toole observed, the critic’s expression of confusion made it a helpful review for non-anime fans. His review was perfect for non-anime fans, indicating that this niche audience film isn’t going to be a fun time if you don’t already love anime.
The same thing goes for my beginner Gundam modeling tutorial. If you already know how to build Gunpla, this article may be about a topic you enjoy and like to read about most of the time, but in this case it doesn’t tell you anything new. Tutorials are tough because if you already know how to do the thing the article is teaching, it’s hard to provide additional value. Perhaps I could have encouraged experienced builders to share it with people they want to get into the hobby.
Last month, I wrote about the biggest mistake geek writers make, which is going too far into the weeds so newcomers to the niche have no idea what you’re talking about. These articles risk the opposite problem—writing so generally that the article alienates people already in the know.
There is a world of difference between an article written about your niche, and an article written for your niche. However, I don’t think the burden to differentiate lies on the reader. Ideally, it’s up to writers to ensure that niche articles strike a balance. Articles shouldn’t gate keep or prevent the casually interested from understanding the subject, but they also shouldn’t talk down to people who are already well immersed in the niche. Easier said than done.
If you stick with the freelance writing thing, you may find that this is the quandary that plagues you for the rest of your career. But here are some of my tips for getting closer to perfect:
Ditch the terminology
You may notice that I almost always refer to anime in the title of an article as “Japanese cartoons.” Why? It’s a million times more accessible to outsiders. As much as I realize that my core audience may find this term a bit inaccurate, I do get paid by the hit and truth be told, the stories with “Japanese cartoons” in the title get LOADS more hits. So what’s better—using insider terminology, or welcoming newcomers? I’ve made my decision.
Don’t just scratch the surface
Once you ditch the insider lingo, you’ll find it’s not hard to explain any concept, from waifu culture to an explanation of the Dark Web you could give to your parents. I challenge you, one writer to another, to practice explaining your most obscure hobby in a way anybody could understand. Don’t just blandly summarize—that does a disservice both to existing fans and outsiders, who will find it equally boring. Dive into the complexities that convey exactly why your community is so passionate about it and you’ve got yourself a story.
Remember: everyone’s a potential fan
We all start somewhere. Just because a reader doesn’t know the difference between “manga” and “graphic novel” doesn’t mean that the right introductory article might unlock a rewarding new comic-reading hobby for them. Even the biggest insiders in your niche aren’t omnipotent. Gamers haven’t played every video game; anime fans who use tsundere fluently may have never heard the term hikikomori. When you write generally, it’s not that you’re talking down to your existing audience—you’re creating more instructive journalism for them as well.
In closing, I’d love to know if you’ve seen examples of this kind of journalism in the wild. What are your favorite articles written about niche topics? Do they use any of these techniques to be successful?
- Understanding the otherkin by Gavia Baker-Whitlaw
- How fangirls changed the future of publishing by Aja Romano
- Heroine Boys and Princely Girls: How “Nozaki-kun” is Challenging Gender Roles in Fiction by Josei Next Door.
Photo by Martin Fisch.