By Daniel Casarez, Special to California Publisher
Understanding various strategies for audience growth in today’s news environment may simply be an overtone between native print journalism and digital platforms in the industry’s evolution.
Of course, it’s vital to know your audience: the demographic, the history of the community in which they live, the various social challenges and the successes.
Reporters and editors use numerous analytics to measure their audience in numbers: what’s popular this day, this week and then we celebrate the clicks. It isn’t always journalism’s award-winners that top the list on Chartbeat or Google Analytics.
Our audience still relies on great journalism with information to keep them informed on the numerous issues in their community, and they’re relying on your in-depth coverage over the report on nightly news. The same subscribers want information to help improve themselves and their communities.
Editors press their reporters
to closely engage with local activists to keep them and their audience as followers on such topics as COVID-19 and vaccination rates, education, housing and the homeless, and numerous other issues.
There’s also the reliance on advertising and subscriptions, digital and otherwise.
Jeremy Rue is an associate dean in the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. Admittedly, this arena isn’t his specialty, but he sharply draws on the works of the late business consultant Clayton Christensen, who believes that publishers should determine foremost who their customers are and how to best meet their needs.
The following is an excerpt from Christensen’s September 2016 article, “Know Your Customers’ Jobs to Be Done,” published in the Harvard Business Review and co-written with Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon and David S.
Duncan: After decades of watching great companies fail, we’ve come to the conclusion that the focus on correlation — and on knowing more and more about customers — is taking firms in the wrong direction. What they really need to home in on is the progress that the customer is trying to make in a given circumstance — what the customer hopes to accomplish. This is what we’ve come to call the job to be done.
Rue quoted the Harvard Business Review article, citing the importance in knowing the audience. He adds that the way people want to get their news may be the simplest.
But, he says, the approach isn’t the same for every community or audience demographic.
“I imagine news customers try to look for the most frictionless way to get the news in their daily routine,” says Rue.
“This used to be picking up a newspaper on the front doorstep each morning. Increasingly, it evolved into activities like opening up email newsletters. These days it could be a combination of things: a smartphone notification, a morning briefing in a news app or a social media posting.”
Understanding the audience is key; the platform relies on it
“I think it really comes down to looking at your audience and your potential audience, and figuring out ways to get them content that they’re going to use,” says Jimmy Boegle, founder of the Coachella Valley Independent, a free monthly print publication and a website painstakingly updated as a daily. A newsletter is also available three days a week.
“We actually have a membership program, where people can go and just basically give us money essentially to help support us. But, you know, our print version is free, and we don’t have any paywalls on our website. The newsletter is free. Basically, everything we do is free. And we just ask our readers to contribute if they can,” said Boegle.
Boegle’s publication, with two staffers, including himself, does well in the Coachella Valley with affluent neighbors in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage, where Barack Obama vacationed when he was president.
“Our readership is all over the map in print. We’ve got a lot of older people with money that just have the habit of picking up the print edition. Whereas in the eastern Coachella Valley, we’ve got a lot of readers that like to pick it up because they don’t necessarily have reliable internet access.”
Long Beach Post’s social media and newsletter manager, Valerie Osier, has a similar approach to audience recognition.
“Every single thing we do must be put through the lens of: Who is this serving and how does this serve our audience? News leaders, particularly those from traditionally print backgrounds, need to get comfortable with asking their audience what the audience wants to know,” Osier said via email.
“They need to stop assuming they know what our communities want to know, particularly in newsrooms that are predominantly white. We’re long past the point of sticking something on a page and expecting people to read it.
News leaders need to develop a circular feedback system, where they’re constantly listening to their communities and actually putting what they say into practice.”
According to Elizabeth Smith, a faculty adviser and assistant professor in the Communications Division at Pepperdine University, students are being taught how to do the job: take a solutions-oriented approach to all the possible duties in today’s ever-changing newsrooms.
“We hope we can create adaptable journalists: create with solutions,” said Smith.
“Don’t feel you have to be everything to everyone. Figure out where you can reach your audiences, and go there, Facebook, Instagram, but make it great; the best place to reach your audience. Cultivate that first, measurable success, then develop on it.”
Rue did touch on the challenges for smaller publishers, who don’t have budgets for surveying audiences and staffers to help target platforms, encouraging research on the ideas facilitated by larger and resourced publishers.
“The good news is that with digital, there is usually a low investment cost to try new things. It’s relatively cheap for the photo staff to start a photo blog, or for one of the columnists to record a weekly podcast, or the circulation folks to sell gift card subscriptions (which I find a strange lack when I’m looking for gift ideas),” Rue says.
Reach out for grants
“We’re a 50-year-old publication. For 50 years, we’ve been focused on a print deadline,” says Paulette Brown-Hinds, founder of Voice Media Ventures in Southern California.
Because of the closures of numerous businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown-Hinds, also the
publisher of Black Voice News and theievoice.com, expected a new way of delivery because many of their drop locations were shuttered. She didn’t want to lose the community that came to trust their information and feed into misinformation on the internet.
“Because of COVID and all of the calls for racial justice awakening that we saw last year, especially the Black news outlets, we were seeing more support. So we took advantage of those opportunities,” said Brown-Hinds.
“We changed to a new CMS (content management system) and to Newspack. The challenge has been learning the new tech, and having a team that’s trying to learn the new tech.”
Through application funding, she began a Facebook journalism project, an initiative innovation award to build a data platform; and applied to Report for America to help fund a journalist.
“We had this idea for a data hub and content sharing platform, so we got that funded to develop it. It’s not just thinking like that, but how to manage it through this pandemic,” says Brown-Hinds, also a James Irvine Foundation board member.
Between Black Voice News and ievoice.com, they achieve about 70,000 unique visitors monthly. Brown-Hinds also created a VIP donor list, where she sends updates on the publications.
Time for a change
“I think with a print newspaper, we took it for granted because those institutions have been around for decades with those subscriber bases; we didn’t live through the building up of those,” says Matt Lindsay, president of Mather Economics in Atlanta.
The team at Mather Economics consults hundreds of publications and other businesses annually in the U.S. and abroad on growth and margin increase.
“I think what we’re seeing now, as we are going through this, is a digital subscriber base growth. And I think it’s accelerating due to the news cycle of COVID, the elections and so on.”
Some of the challenges, says Lindsay, in transitioning print subscribers to digital, is the retention of as much revenue as possible.
“The product is going through a big transition because, on the digital side, we now have so much more insight into what our core audiences are reading. So I see some really encouraging things there.”
“Many publications that currently have a seven-day frequency schedule have a lot of legacy readers, if you want to call them that, that are only engaged with the print product,” added Matthew Lulay, a senior director in consulting services at Mather Economics.
Numerous U.S. publishers reduced days in their print version; Lulay says they found that it was an easier transition when the days are cut gradually.
“We’ve worked with many publishers on forecasting the revenue and expense implications of reducing their print footprint. Perhaps taking out a Saturday or a Monday,” said Lulay.
Sonya Quick, digital editor of Voice of OC, a digital publication in Orange County, is concerned about the future of news. She
is a self-proclaimed “critic of current news models and spirited about the future of others.”
“Primarily print news publications have deep-rooted models that make it very difficult to quickly adjust and iterate,” Quick said via email. “Early digital profits were nowhere close enough to replacing the drop-off in print profits. Those early shifting days required and often did not receive radical thinking and bold leadership.”
Quick believes many publications — attempting to acquire peak audience levels in an effort to increase ad impressions and maintain a unique product — will cause publications to lessen their value online.
“Take a look at Cal Matters, Oaklandside, Reveal, Voice of San Diego and San Francisco Public Press, just to name a few. Nonprofit news offers a few definitive elements. The model offers a direct relationship business plan: Increasing the quality of the news product directly makes it more likely to gain and maintain donors,” says Quick.
Just as print platforms endeavor to present themselves digitally, online publications, such as L.A. Taco, hope to break into the print version.
“We are doing a collaboration with USC, and we are doing two volumes of ’zines with journalism students from Annenberg,” said Javier Cabral, who reports on food, culture and punk rock for L.A. Taco in Los Angeles. “Professor Amara Aguilar (associate professor of professional practice in digital journalism) has worked really hard to find the funding and grants for two print ’zines.
“A proven model for us, and continues to build our membership, is we trust a lot of first-time writers,” said Cabral, “And I work with them to help get their perspective of their versions, their neighborhoods, or their experiences in the city.”
“Scrappy” and “street-level journalism” is what attracts subscriptions to L.A. Taco, and, according to Cabral, it’s practically their motto.
A well-organized digital platform can broaden your reach in the community, maybe further.
“I think it is possible to convert a print audience to a digital product,” said Lindsay, “I feel like the industry is really evolving, like the distribution platform used to be owned by the newspapers; they were generating the content and they were operating the distribution. Clearly that’s changing now, so there is this new form of distribution.”
“As print delivery gets reduced across the country, it provides the opportunity to engage people with digital that perhaps did not have a high propensity to do that previously. There’s an opportunity there because you aren’t restricted as a publisher to your local area to sell news. With digital you can compete with just about anybody that you want around the world,” added Lulay.
Daniel Casarez is a freelance writer based in Fresno. Illustrator Evan Solano is a freelance designer and journalist based in San Dimas.