Growth Editor. The first time I heard that title for someone in a newsroom, I might’ve giggled. It just sounds odd, like an editor who handles a very specific kind of health coverage, right? But it’s not so odd a term anymore: In the past year, more and more news organizations are giving someone with the very specific duty of increasing (growing) the number of readers.
One organization looking to add a growth editor is Chalkbeat, an education news nonprofit where I’m helping out as a research consultant during my last semester of grad school. Chalkbeat knows it wants to grow its readership in a meaningful way, and wants someone to be in charge of those efforts, but isn’t exactly sure about all the details of having a growth editor. So I dove into researching my first few questions for them: What kinds of things are growth editors in charge of? What kinds of things do they actually do, day-to-day?
To get answers to those questions, I talked with Quartz’s Director of Growth Thomas McBee, The Denver Post’s Director of Audience Development Dan Petty, and The Grand Island (Neb.) Independent’s Audience Development Editor Stephanie Romanski, who all stepped into their current titles within the past year.
I also talked to Billy Penn Community Manager Shannon Wink. Even though she’s not technically solely tasked with growing the audience, when you’re working for a newsroom that’s barely a year old, growing your community from zero is a pretty big focus.
Here’s what I learned.
How do you define your job?
“The primary way I think of it is I work as an editor,” says McBee at Quartz.
“I’m on the editorial side. My editorial mandate is to look for opportunities to fold in our editorial strategy with our strategy to reach more people.”
McBee says that when there’s an obstacle to growth, it’s most often an editorial obstacle, such as a story not being framed or headlined in a way that will resonate with the audience.
“Quartz is pretty unique in that we don’t separate our growth strategy from our editorial strategy at all,” McBee says. “There’s really no difference to us. It’s more this is my area of focus as an editor, but it’s not something that’s only touched at the end of the process, it’s something that’s throughout everything we do.”
For Petty at The Denver Post, “The stated goal is how I get our work in front of a larger and larger audience, how do I do that without compromising who we are. How do I do that while figuring out how to tell the stories of Denver and Colorado effectively.”
Unlike McBee, Petty sees himself as spanning both the editorial and business departments. “If I were to divide it up: 70% editorial, 30% business.”
“At this stage, I can’t look at anything and not say ‘What are the business implications of this?’ We just don’t have that luxury anymore.”
Romanski says she’s in a “big think” role at the Grand Island Independent. She’s in charge of getting ideas for increasing the traffic to the paper’s site and mobile app. (She’s also in charge of a lot of other things, including helping the reporters use social media effectively.)
Here are a few of the ways these journalists are trying to grow the audience for their news organization:
Identifying potential new audiences
Audience development is not just necessarily about scale, Petty says. He says he also tries to think about potential “right audiences” to go after. “So maybe it’s not a huge audience but maybe it’s an audience that doesn’t have its information needs currently being filled.” He points to how Politico Pro has approached reporting deeply within niche topic areas. (Disclosure: I used to work for Politico Pro.)
In Nebraska, Romanski is working on a new initiative to give space on the Independent’s website to rural communities that don’t have their own newspapers. She says the goal is that over time, people in those communities might offer story tips, photos, events, or citizen journalism and build a place “where they can have more coverage than we can provide with only one or two reporters.”
Reaching out to people who might be interested in a specific story or event.
Wink says part of her role at Billy Penn is basic outreach for their stories — sharing the links with people who are either featured in or interested in stories, sometimes tagging them on social media when appropriate.
Petty gives an example of the kind of distribution planning that’s he’s focused on. He recently covered a cross-country meet out of town, and knew without the right kind of promotion plan, the story would only be read by a few hundred people.
“I need to get that in front of the right audience,” Petty says. “My first step in the promotional process beyond even tweeting something or sharing it on Facebook or sending it to a few people, what I really want to do is get it on the leading running website. If I can get it on that website, get in front of an audience of tens of thousands of people interested in running, I’m going to hit that right audience, I’m going to get the pageviews and traffic that justifies me going 40 minutes to Boulder to cover a race.”
Shaping stories — and particularly headlines — to resonate with readers
McBee says at Quartz, headlines are central to his work.
“I spend a majority of my day thinking about headlines. I think that people underestimate how meaningful that is, maybe, if they’re not doing that.”
When you’re talking about headlines, McBee says, you’re talking about a lot of deeper editorial issues:
- What is this story really about?
- How are we choosing to frame things?
- What content areas are we spending time in?
- Where could we be spending more time where we have audiences that are interested in hearing more about this narrative or subject area?
- What’s the best way to approach headlines so they’re impactful, literally all over the world, literally on every platform?
- How can we teach the team to think this way so that we’re editorially really consistent?
“Headlines end up being the surface of what I do all day long,” McBee says.
The headline strategy is meaningful because when it works, McBee says, people who are bombarded with information all day can quickly see “Wow, this story looks really interesting. This clearly is part of a larger conversation I’m having or thinking about. It speaks to an area of interest I personally am passionate about.” Or, and this is where McBee and Quartz aim with some of their “obsession” coverage: “I didn’t even know I should be passionate about it but this headline is so interesting that I’m clicking it. And because it’s conveying the writer’s passion, I now am also feeling passionate.”
“That’s the goal,” McBee says.
Following up with new readers to build a relationship.
“The two biggest things for me at Billy Penn and every other job I’ve had are face time with people and then follow up.” — Shannon Wink, community manager
Wink says events have proven to be a good way to meet new readers, but that’s just the beginning of her work. “So, OK, that’s great, we met someone really cool at this event we had. But it can’t stop there.” If the conversation can lead to a story, “we need to make it a story.” If there’s not an immediate story, “What is another way that we can interact with that person?”
“We’re genuinely interested in meeting people and hearing about who they are and learning about what they’re doing and making sure that we are translating that into how we cover the city.” Billy Penn’s “newsroom” is actually a table in a co-working space, which Wink says has its advantages when pitching and scheduling stories.
“The editorial process is four people around a table and so no idea goes unexplored.”
Pushing the organization to go beyond the regular sources for stories.
Wink says that in Philly, there are pretty distinct social circles. “It’s easy for anyone to fall into this trap of covering the same people or talking about the same thing. So I try very hard that if we’re talking to the same person again, that they’re connecting us to something or someone new.” Getting to know and cover people outside your regular circles is where the most readership growth can happen.
Analytics. Analytics. Analytics.
“Analytics are a very, very big part of what I do,” Petty says of his job at The Denver Post. “It’s understanding trends with pageviews and traffic. My big three are Google Analytics, Chartbeat, and we have our video analytics through Ooyala, which is our third-party video provider.”
Speaking of Chartbeat, Romanski says having those metrics on display have helped with a culture shift at the Independent: “We have monitors up in our newsroom that constantly showing our website’s traffic and what stories are doing well, all in real time, to really involve the whole newsroom — from reporters to the managing editors — in seeing exactly the fruits of their labors.”
At Billy Penn, Wink says it’s a challenge, but they’re trying to measure more than just what the common analytics numbers can show them. “Obviously the easiest things to do is to look at numbers. To say, oh that number got bigger that must be good. But we are looking really closely at engagement. … Whether someone who interacts with us on Twitter is also subscribed to a newsletter and also has been to an event. All of those kinds of intersections are extremely important to us.”
Assigning and shaping stories on trending topics
McBee says every morning, growth editors and news editors work together to create a list of story assignments that are “both social and Quartz-y.”
“We’re kind of like a ground zero for story assignments if people choose to come to us for those” — and the reporters who pick an assignment from their list know that the idea has been vetted by both growth editors and news editors.
At The Denver Post, Petty says he keeps an eye on the news and tries to spot what could be trending. One example he gave was when a Miss Colorado contestant came onstage in her nurse scrubs, he says he knew it had all the elements to be a great trending story with a local tie, so he asked: “How can I advance the story or do something different?”
In Wink’s work with Billy Penn, she says she does a lot of outreach and coordination for the events. “We have a VP of sales and events, and she goes out and sells against them and gets sponsors. I do a lot to make sure that everyone in our network, or people who want to be part of our network, or who we want to be reaching, that they are aware of the event.”
Petty’s job at The Denver Post is to consider both the financial and editorial costs and benefits of an event.
“First things first, first question before even business is ‘Is it good journalism?’ So, say doing community events … if I’m going to do something like that I need to pick events that are going to draw a large enough audience that’s going to openly attract a sponsor. I have to be thinking about A) Is the journalism good? Probably going to be, it’s a news event, it’s a live event. And B) Can I justify the man-hours by getting sponsor or an advertiser tied to this in some way?”
Petty says weighing those factors — what’s good journalism, where is there an audience, and how could we make money — makes his role very broad.
“You basically can take anything and justify it as audience development. It’s something I’m really passionate about. All of these little efforts advance how do we improve our workflow, how do we improve our distribution, how do get more audience, how do we get the right audience. I feel like at any one point I’m working on 15 little projects.”
“It spans the whole newsroom and that’s one thing I really like.”
Know someone doing something awesome to grow their newsroom’s audience? Let me know.
- How Philly’s Billy Penn is Building a Local News Audience from Scratch (Nieman Lab, December 2014)
- How The New York Times is growing its digital audience (Ari Isaacman Astles, Growth Strategy Editor at The New York Times, October 2015)
- California dreaming: How the L.A. Times is introducing new beats and platforms to grow its audience (Nieman Lab, September 2015)
- Miami Herald grows audiences with growing number of niche smartphone apps (INMA, August 2015)
More about this project: