Diversifying audience should be mission-critical for newsrooms. Here’s how you can work toward that goal.

Read up on some strategies that news organizations of all sizes have used to successfully expand their reach beyond their core audiences.

By Summer Fields and Stephanie Snyder

Diversify newsrooms → Diversify sources → Diversify audience.

Diversifying staff and diversifying sources requires much more than a stringent verbal commitment to make it happen, and successfully diversifying audience is no different: It takes time, the development of new processes, relationship-building, clear outreach plans, and accountability measures.

Reaching beyond your core audience often means engaging marginalized and underrepresented communities (though it can vary depending on the publication). For local newsrooms serving geographic regions, that can look like better reaching non-white and less affluent neighborhoods. For niche- and topic-focused newsrooms, that can mean making content more accessible to people who aren’t working within the industry (e.g. a publication covering higher education looking to engage more college students).

Why is expanding your audience important?

In order to restore trust in the media, newsrooms need to do a better job helping marginalized communities feel seen and heard. Having newsroom staff and sources who better reflect these various communities or have similar life experiences is an extremely effective way to do that.

Expanding audience is key even beyond the mission-driven and public service aspects — it’s also crucial to improve the long-term sustainability of news organizations. The more that newsrooms demonstrate they are invested in communities, the more those community members will feel personally invested in newsrooms — which over time could be measured by the community members sharing their dollars (membership, subscription, donation), time (volunteering and evangelism) and resources (access to community connectors and spaces).

As newsrooms continue working toward staff and source diversity, here are some other strategies that news organizations of all sizes have used to successfully expand their reach beyond their core audiences:

Analyze your existing reach, then try in-person outreach

Curious City audio producer Jesse Dukes at a Chicago library gathering a question during the experiment. Credit: Bill Healy.

Before a newsroom can work to reach and connect with new target communities, a helpful starting point is analyzing who they’re already reaching. WBEZ’s Curious City focuses on audience questions about Chicago, the region and its people. Staffers assessed the ZIP codes the show had received questions from after a few years of running the project, and produced a heat map of that reach. Then, the team spent a year testing out different outreach techniques to get questions from neighborhoods that in the past had not submitted to Curious City.

The most efficient outreach method by far was in-person outreach, especially setting up booths at public library branches.

Marfa Public Radio also set up shop at libraries as part of a road trip to expand its reach. The station serves a geographical area the size of South Carolina. Ahead of launching West Texas Wonders, the staff decided on a week-long road trip to get the word out, gather questions, and meet residents. Marfa staffers found that people walk into the library in a more curious frame of mind than say, trying to flag people down at the grocery store, so local libraries make natural partners for newsrooms looking to meet more people in target areas.

Marfa’s road trip map. Photo credit: Marfa Public Radio

The Dallas Morning News has also partnered with their local public library system to hold office hours at local libraries around North Texas. It’s an extension of their reader-powered series Curious Texas. The newsroom’s goal is giving folks more paths to be in touch however they’re most comfortable. These efforts helped the journalists forge many in-person connections and to get more questions from people they’d never heard from.

Pounding the pavement and approaching individual residents outside libraries has generated promising results for newsrooms, too. While these approaches require considerable time investment, it’s worth thinking through ways to incorporate them. You can explore whether you want to plan a high-investment, high-return, short-term effort like a road trip throughout your area, or start small. Think about community events your newsroom may already be hosting or attending, and plan to go in with a goal of creating a pathway for attendees to engage with you later.

Expanding reach through partnerships and events

Newsrooms can act as conveners for community members, whether they work to create a space for one community or to bridge gaps between different ones. This effort can be strengthened through partnering up with other mission-driven organizations.

jesikah maria ross, senior community engagement strategist at CapRadio in Sacramento, and Sammy Caiola, a reporter from the station who was awarded a USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism California Fellowship, crafted a series of engaged journalism events aimed at tackling the issue of rural suicide in the region. In their nuts and bolts case study of the events, they speak to the importance of the local organizations they partnered up with in making this event as useful as possible for the community. The partners, from local newspapers to advocacy groups, helped spread the word of the events and why they were being held, were sounding boards for the journalists’ approaches, and gave practical support to help make the events happen.

WBEZ Curious City received an audience question that launched a series of events in partnership with the American Islamic College (AIC) in Chicago. An ESL teacher asked Curious City, “Do Chicago’s Arab And African-American Muslims Share Mosques? If Not, Why Not?” To answer it, in October 2017, Curious City brought four Muslim leaders from the Arab and African-American communities to its studio to talk through their perspectives on racial divisions in the community. Those guests suggested a follow-up live event around the topic so that more people in the community could take part in the conversation, so Curious City partnered with the AIC to put on a panel on their campus a month later. The Q&A got heated, as people spoke from personal experiences of intra-community racism. It became clear to Curious City and the partners that they should create a space where people could work together more. So, in September 2018, WBEZ worked with AIC to host an interactive workshop geared toward solutions for building interracial relationships within the Chicago-area Muslim community.

All of this was sparked by one audience question that went on to be so much more over time. Curious City, working with a respected community partner, the AIC, took cues from their guests, who are leaders in their community, to create a space to explore identified issues.

CapRadio and Curious City took on the role of community conveners with these events. That’s above and beyond the role newsrooms may typically take on, but it’s an opportunity to deepen engagement, expand reach and provide value for a range of communities.

Partnering up for online engagement

The power of partnering can extend to digitally-rooted engagement too. During Louisville’s mayoral primary, WFPL teamed up with local paper Al Día Louisville to take questions from residents in both English and Spanish. Then, they got the mayoral candidates to answer those questions. The result was a bilingual voter guide.

When The Evergrey was brainstorming its first Hearken project last summer, cofounder and director Mónica Guzmán knew that she wanted to focus their efforts on homelessness: a huge, critical issue in Seattle with a lot of untapped curiosities, concerns, and anxieties — both comfortable and uncomfortable.

Guzmán knew that The Evergrey would bring in great questions about homelessness from its own audience, but she also knew that her small team (just herself and one reporter) could do stronger, more relevant work if they could collect questions from all corners of Seattle and enlist help to answer as many questions as possible for their community.

So she started reaching out to local media outlets with the hope of bringing on a partner or two, and she ended up forming a coalition of eight local news organizations that would put out the same call for questions about homelessness in Seattle: The Evergrey, GeekWire, Crosscut, KUOW, ParentMap, Seattlepi, Seattle Patch, and Real Change Seattle.

The project, #SeaHomeless, resulted in 400 reader questions, 10 stories reported by eight outlets that answered the most popular and interesting questions, and a popular Facebook Live broadcast where several of the partner journalists discussed what everyone in the city could learn from the questions they received.

This showcases how overcoming fear of competition to create newsroom collaborations can deepen reach and impact. “This was a groundbreaking and very successful collaboration among journalists from different/competing organizations who came together not only to share questions asked by their audiences, but also to make decisions about which outlet would answer which questions based on a collective, publicly-oriented understanding of their respective audience strengths,” Guzmán shared. “We weren’t sure we could pull it off, but we did, and it was amazing.”

Empower community to participate directly in reporting

Another method of expanding reach and relevancy is empowering community members to tell their own stories through your newsroom. WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, runs an innovative radio training program called Community Voices, teaching professional-level production skills. Its purpose is to get local voices on the air and attract talent to the station.

Many of the ”ComVox” trainees continue to produce stories for the station once the 6-month training program ends.

“One of the things that was actually hardest to teach and hardest for people to learn was this idea of pitching a news story: how do you find a story that works and how do you put together a good pitch? That’s just something that takes time to learn,” former managing editor Lewis Wallace told Hearken in a 2016 interview. Wallace suggested that WYSO adopt the Hearken model and it became one of the the first local stations to do so, calling their local version “WYSO Curious.”

A Community Voices cohort, courtesy of Juliet Fromholt at WYSO.

“‘WYSO Curious’ was a really great way for us to have ready-made assignments for people who wanted to come back and do a second or a third story and really start to build up their skills as radio producers.”

Now, five years after the launch of “WYSO Curious,” Community Voices producers and summer interns produce most of the “WYSO Curious” stories, using the Hearken platform. They are often the most popular stories on the WYSO website, General Manager Neenah Ellis said to Hearken in an email.

“We are always trying to find new ways to engage our community producers and listeners,“ says Ellis. “Our Community Voices training has helped to make ‘WYSO Curious’ a success.”

Creating pathways for community members to tell stories with and for their own communities can help democratize your platform in a small way.

Next steps for you and your newsroom

  1. If you don’t already know, figure out who your core audience currently is using available data.
  2. Based on that data analysis, identify the communities / audiences that you’re not reaching.
  3. Make a list of places (both online and IRL) where those communities gather.
  4. Identify community influencers / leaders that could help you have an authentic presence in those spaces.
  5. Work with those influencers / leaders to co-develop an outreach plan to reach your target audiences.

Hearken is here to help you think through reaching beyond your core audience. Having helped more than 150 newsrooms around the globe implement successful engagement strategies, we’re eager to share those insights with you. You can book a free 30-minute strategy call with Summer or Stephanie here. (If you’re a current partner, you can reach out to your engagement consultant to set up a conversation!)