Welcome to the Single Subject News Project’s Blog!

Hi there. My name is Emily, and I’m the research project manager for a project here at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School — the Single Subject News Project, funded by the Knight Foundation. We’re a team on a mission to discover best practices on how nonprofit, single-subject news sites can engage, grow and monetize their online audiences. Our research sits in an emerging field of scholarship that seeks to identify sustainable business models for high-quality, digital journalism.

Why our project matters

The ongoing transition from print to digital journalism has led to lower revenues for many legacy news organizations. Investigative journalism and coverage on public-interest issues are often the first to be cut as newsrooms get smaller. In response, we have seen a group of nonprofit, digital-only, single-subject outlets emerge to fill the gaps in coverage left by a shrinking newspaper industry.

But these new organizations face a host of obstacles in finding and building a loyal digital audience that can help financially sustain them. How can they navigate the search and social media dominated web to find readers who will appreciate their stories? How can they build relationships with those readers and turn them into financial supporters? How can the best practices these organizations are learning benefit the field of journalism as a whole? Those are the questions our project is designed to answer.

Our Team

Let me start by introducing you to our team at the Shorenstein Center: Nicco Mele, the Shorenstein Center’s Director, Elizabeth Hansen, our Research Fellow, Kinsey Wilson, our Visiting Fellow, and myself. We also work with a team of incredible consultants, contractors and graduate students who bring us expertise, capacity and skill sets as the scope of our research expands.

Our Cohort

Our project is working with a cohort of nine amazing newsrooms. The War Horse, The Marshall Project, The Trace, Chalkbeat and The Hechinger Report are filling the gap in coverage around veterans issues, criminal justice, gun violence in America, local education news, and innovation and inequality in our education system, respectively. In addition to these single subject newsrooms, our research cohort also includes ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, and The Center for Public Integrity, as investigative and nonprofit models with broader coverage areas.

We’re constantly learning from our cohort, partners and team members, and we want to start sharing these findings with you more frequently. As a step in that direction, we’re going to start posting here regularly.

What we’ve done so far

After kicking off the project in the summer, we conducted individual data analyses based on the web, email and donor analytics for each participating site. Throughout the process, we realized we didn’t have a tool to standardize and measure the email metrics that matter when looking at audience engagement and growth. So, we worked with Jacque Boltik (consultant and co-founder of Devens Analytics) to produce this research guide on using data science tools for email audience analysis and these accompanying Python notebooks. In December, we hosted our first cohort convening here in Cambridge, Massachusetts for internal knowledge sharing.

What we’re doing now

We’re working with each cohort site on a few audience development related “experiments” that our team will track, document and revise until the summer. These experiments range from re-thinking the content strategy of their email newsletters, to designing and launching an audience acquisition campaign, to experimenting with different platforms and tools.

Our goal here is to identify what works and what doesn’t when trying to acquire and engage readers.

We also launched a few cohort-wide initiatives that run in tandem with the experiments — we’re building a tool for email analytics benchmarking across the field, we’re conducting a study on Facebook referral traffic, and we’re developing an SEO/SEM co-citation network to increase the search performance of our cohort sites.

What’s next

We’re preparing for our next cohort convening on Friday, March 23rd. This convening will be a small, internal gathering between our participating sites to talk about the experiments’ progress.

We’ll also have more updates soon on those projects I mentioned above. Stay tuned for next week’s post.

If you’d like to say hello in the meantime, please feel free to email me at Emily_Roseman@hks.harvard.edu. We would love to hear from you.