Connecting Audience to Revenue
Part Two of a two-part series on what a reporter’s journey tells us about newsrooms and creating niche audiences
In my last blog, I told you the story about a Midwest reporter who quit her job over frustrations of what she felt was her editor’s disinterest in stories relevant to a distinct population. It is a troubling claim that keeps newsrooms separate from their communities, but could be the key for some struggling news outlets to remain above water. Niche communities and communities of interest have always been important to telling more full and true stories about the places we live, but increasingly we are seeing that they can also be important to the financial sustainability of local news.
For the past couple of months, I’ve attended a handful of summits focused on audience development and revenue sponsored by Democracy Fund grantees. Democracy Fund, and others, are hoping to spur more journalists to discuss ways to sustain their work by forging deeper relationships with the audiences and communities they serve. That means cultivating more intimate relationships with niche audiences.
LIONs at IRE
Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers joined Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) to conduct a full day of sessions about how hyperlocal publishers are monetizing local content. Unlike their counterparts in mainstream local media, many hyperlocal publishers are working to master the art of developing niche audiences for their highly specialized content. Because many, if not all of these publishers, are native to the neighborhoods they serve — or long-time residents thereof — they have existing relationships with neighbors, friends, city officials, and business leaders in these communities. These relationships pay-off in a myriad of ways, including advertising sales, subscriptions and memberships.
Hyperlocal publishers have identified the importance of forging authentic relationships with readers they serve as part of the secret sauce in building sustainable business models.
These publishers know that if you build it, money for local news won’t magically appear. Hyperlocal publishers have identified the importance of forging authentic relationships with readers they serve as part of the secret sauce in building sustainable business models. The other part of the recipe that LION members understand more and more is that communities often ignored by mainstream news organizations (100,000 African immigrants, for instance) are opportunities, both in terms of coverage and monetization.
API’s Reader Revenue Summit
In June the American Press Institute hosted a summit in Arlington, Virginia focused on identifying how news organizations identify and reach different kinds of news audiences in a reader revenue world. In other words, API is seeking to help newsrooms better understand that they have several different audiences, not just one, and that there is money to be earned by appropriately identifying these audiences as well as their needs.
At the summit there was lots of talk about digital tools and swanky swag to get readers to sign-up for newsletters, or better yet, buy subscriptions. They also discussed challenges those on the business side face when trying to automatically renew subscriptions when credit cards have expired. There was even talk about how The Seattle Times now requires journalists to grow their own niche audiences year-over-year by certain percentages.
Producing content for niche audiences is nothing new in the media business. ESPN has been doing it for decades. They’ve even developed special products, which they charge for, designed for superfans or those addicted to certain kinds of sports or events such as the NFL draft. The products provide exclusive access to insider information and sports figures themselves (journalists as well as athletes). In the old days, editors and publishers called these kinds of products, “special sections.” ESPN is leveraging technology to update its “special sections” for the digital era in the form of apps and other specialized digital products for their superfans.
ONA-Local Rocky Mountain: Church and State
After the API summit, the Online News Association held a meet-up in Denver where the topic du jour was about troubles at The Denver Post, but journalists who are already moving on wanted to talk about how they could cultivate audiences who would pay for their independently-produced content.
Some in attendance worried over the ethics of lowering the wall between church (newsrooms) and state (business operations). But Jim Brady, CEO of Spirited Media, Inc., Alexandra Smith, Growth Editor at WhereByUs, Dr. Christine Larson, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Colorado — Boulder, and myself discussed how to engage with audiences while also producing journalism that meets high ethical standards of fairness and quality storytelling.
The conversation focused on how building relationships with the communities we work in not only better informs the work journalists do, but when people see themselves and the issues they care about reflected in news coverage, it adds value to their lives.
Speaking of value, Larson raised the contention first offered by Stanford University’s Director of Journalism, James Hamilton, that people are willing to pay for consumer reports, information to help them do their jobs better, and entertainment news, but aren’t so willing to pay for information that enables them to be better citizens.
I worked with Hamilton as a Knight Fellow at Stanford. He’s an economist, I’m not. I have a great deal of respect for him. But I believe people will pay for investigative reporting and journalism that improves their lives. In May, for example, Richland Source — a small hyperlocal in Mansfield Ohio (and a LION publisher) — raised $70,000 to produce deep dives into how small, rust-belt cities like Mansfield can reinvent themselves in a new economy. The second long-term investigative project focused on examining the best ways of caring for aging elders.
People will support local news and investigative reporting, they just need to see themselves in that coverage or see that it helps them identify solutions for everyday problems.
In 2015, in yet another example, The Lo-Down, a community site and magazine on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (and another LION publisher), launched a crowdfund campaign in which they asked their community to help fund a one-year reporting project on struggling small businesses in their neighborhood. The Lo-Down raised nearly $30,000 to support its small business initiative, and the publication is still going strong.
My point is, people will support local news and investigative reporting, they just need to see themselves in that coverage or see that it helps them identify solutions for everyday problems, which brings me back to my discussion about the journalist who resigned from her job yesterday.
Through her reporting, this journalist didn’t just connect her organization with immigrant communities they rarely covered in the past, if ever. She also connected this growing population of immigrants with other communities in her city as well. Journalism needs more of this kind of engagement, not less. But less — less audience, less revenue, less quality reporting — is exactly what we’ll get if mainstream news organizations continue doing business as it has always been done.
Tracie Powell is a Senior Fellow with Democracy Fund and founder of AllDigitocracy.org.