AI-generated Artwork

Engaging News Audiences in the Age of Disruption

Adriana Lacy👩🏾‍💻
Let's Gather
Published in
5 min readMay 9, 2024


As newsrooms grapple with the ever-shifting digital landscape, engaging audiences authentically while staying true to journalistic mission has never been more challenging — or more crucial.

As this month’s guest curator for Gather, I had the privilege of diving deep into these issues with a panel of news leaders during our recent Lightning Chat, “Beyond the Feed: Exploring Alternative Digital Platforms for Audience Engagement.”

Joining me were Sam Hoisington, founder of the pre-launch startup Bentonville Bulletin; Hanaa’ Tameez, staff writer for the Nieman Journalism Lab; and Nicolas Rios, director of audience and communities at Documented.

Putting Audience Understanding at the Center

A foundational theme threaded throughout our discussion was the importance of deeply understanding your specific audience and meeting them where they are. In an era of platform changes and disruption, chasing the latest social media trend is often a losing game.

Rios shared how Documented, a nonprofit newsroom covering New York City’s immigrant communities, grounds their platform strategy in extensive audience research. “We don’t choose the headlines at the end of the day,” he explained. “The overarching themes come by listening first.”

Through info needs assessments, Documented surfaced key insights that guided their approach, leading them to build engaged communities on WhatsApp for Latino immigrants, WeChat for Chinese speakers, and Nextdoor for Black Caribbean immigrants who strongly identified with their neighborhoods.

As Rios put it, “If we had not listened before, we would have ended up launching something completely different.” Documented’s metrics focus on engagement and two-way conversations that yield actionable insights, not just chasing pageviews. They respond to every single message, building strong relationships.

The Power of Messaging Apps

Tameez highlighted the massive yet under-tapped potential of WhatsApp and other messaging apps to connect newsrooms more seamlessly with audiences. With over 2 billion global users, “WhatsApp has more than 2 billion users around the world — whole economies and countries literally run on WhatsApp,” she noted.

Integrating news into messaging apps lowers the barrier for people to access quality information. “To be a news outlet with a presence on WhatsApp is to sort of ingratiate yourself into your users’ daily lives,” Tameez explained. “They don’t have to download your news app, sign up for a newsletter…there’s much less friction.”

However, she emphasized that news outlets need clear goals and an approach authentically suited to each platform. Simply blasting out links is a recipe for failure. “You have to be authentic also to the platform and use it in a way that users would naturally interact,” Hanaa’ advised, citing her reporting on how news organizations are thinking about strategy. Valuable use cases include:

  • Creating topic-specific channels or groups for audiences with shared interests
  • Providing unique, focused utility, like the NYT’s recipe-a-day channel
  • Enabling two-way engagement with audiences, not just one-way blasts

Avoiding Social Media Burnout

For Hoisington, who previously launched the successful Madison Minutes newsletter, focusing the Bentonville Bulletin exclusively on email and the website is a strategic choice to avoid the “free-for-all” of social media and preserve his “own mental sanity.”

While he acknowledges email is not entirely “owned” as Gmail changes could be hugely disruptive, Sam believes a highly engaged email list is key. “A newsletter open is a newsletter open,” he added.

Tameez echoed these concerns, noting how many journalists are pulling back from social media as it becomes more toxic and less beneficial for genuine engagement. She advises journalists to be highly intentional about where they invest their limited time. “You just can’t put all your eggs in one basket — we’ve seen that lesson so many times,” she warned.

Emerging Metrics for a New Era

Another crucial shift the panelists highlighted was the need to evolve success metrics beyond pageviews as programmatic ad models wane. “We are a generation of journalists that were educated into taking pageviews as the number one KPI because it made sense during the era of programmatic ads,” Rios reflected. “If AI disrupts search, that could be impacted too.”

At Documented, while they still track pageviews, Rios is pushing to elevate engagement metrics to the same level, tracking things like:

  • Number of people responding on WhatsApp with insights
  • Survey responses and follow-up interviews yielding qualitative feedback
  • Newsletter/website article comments and conversations
  • Event attendance and engagement

As he put it, “If you compare 200 highly engaged contacts providing insights to a million pageviews, pageviews look a lot better. But if you compare engagement to engagement, having those 200 people could be very healthy, even something you tout to funders.”

Quantitative engagement metrics can be combined with periodic qualitative listening via methods like:

  • Website or newsletter pop-up surveys
  • SMS callouts for feedback/story ideas
  • Social media polls
  • In-person focus groups or events

Bringing a Human Voice

To build stronger audience connections, the panelists also emphasized infusing journalism with a more personal, human touch. Rios aims to have Documented’s SMS and WhatsApp communications come from individual reporters introducing themselves.

“We want our newsletters to be more in first person, like ‘I’m the writer, this is my take, I’m going to interview Adriana because she just published this story — Adriana, what do you think?’” he explained. “You can still build brand personality in every product.”

Hoisington concurred, noting that despite its flaws, LinkedIn remains a valuable platform for him to engage as a person, not just a brand. “People have their business tied to it, they have a stake in not being totally crazy and rude,” he said. “I’m still there, but everything else I’m kind of not.”

While traditional journalism often prizes a detached, institutional voice, a more personal tone can foster loyalty, trust and two-way engagement — especially in formats like newsletters, podcasts and messaging apps.

The Promise of In-Person

Looking beyond digital, Hoisington highlighted the power of in-person events, especially for local news outlets. “Offline stuff is a really good way to drive revenue,” he explained. “It will blow your mind what sponsors will pay for some of these in-person sponsorships.”

He sees events as a way to showcase personality and double down on the power of human connection in an AI-saturated world. “I keep trying to look for things AI can’t do, because I’ve got bad news — it can do a lot of what I currently do as a journalist,” Sam said. “Anywhere your personality can shine through, where someone can connect with Sam or Adriana instead of a faceless brand, that’s where I’m placing my bets.”

While the future of search and social remains uncertain, our panel affirmed that a “listen-first” approach and focus on distinctive value are crucial for meaningfully engaging audiences. As Tameez put it, “I don’t know that there’s any one platform I’m particularly excited about, but I’m interested to see what features evolve in response to user needs over time.”

One thing is clear: the era of chasing scale at all costs is giving way to a new paradigm grounded in trust, transparency, personality, and genuine community. Newsrooms that invest in understanding their audiences and experiment with emerging platforms and formats while staying true to their core mission will be best poised to thrive.

Adriana Lacy, an award-winning journalist and Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree, is the founder and CEO of Adriana Lacy Consulting, a digital consulting firm. She created Journalism Mentors to advance early-career journalists and lectures at Brandeis University. Adriana has worked at Axios, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times, and holds degrees from Penn State University and Arizona State University.