January 10, 2017

2017 is shaping up to be a gloomy year for journalism that’s supported by advertising.

With ad-blocking on the rise and advertising budgets shifting away from news, one of the most promising moneymaking frontiers seems to be reader-supported journalism.

The New York Times, with its massive global reach, is betting big on subscribers; Dean Baquet, the Times’ editor, recently said a 10 million subscriber goal was in the realm of possibility. The Washington Post, which is on a quest to convert drive-by traffic into paid subscribers, is now a profitable enterprise. Other subscriber-driven outlets — The Information and Timmerman Report, for example — have found success by putting readers at the center of their businesses.

This focus on audiences raises an important question: How should news organizations that aim to make most of their money from readers, viewers and listeners behave?

I put the question on social media Sunday and asked the Twitterverse for suggestions. Here’s what they came up with. (If you know some I’m forgetting, please feel free to leave them in the comments below!)

Newsletters: One of the most valuable pieces of real estate in our daily lives is the email inbox. News organizations have adopted daily briefings en masse as they seek to build a direct connection to their readers that isn’t mediated by social media.

iPhone/Android applications: If getting into your reader’s inbox is good, having a designated spot on their iPhone screen is better. The best applications are habit-forming and keep your most loyal readers coming back on a regular basis.

From NewsU: Lessons from 10 years in audience engagement

Social media: Judicious use of social media applications Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat can keep your news organization in conversation with the people who follow it. Reader-supported organizations — any organization, really — can’t afford to neglect social media.

Telephone: When I call local newsrooms, there’s an actual person at the other end of the phone who tries to answer my questions. The importance of a real human connection can’t be overstated in the age of digital and automated communication.”

Voicemail: My college-town newspaper once had an answering machine feature that the editor compared to a train wreck: upsetting but impossible to look away from. Readers would call in and leave a message; their (often tasteless) remarks would be transcribed and printed on the second page of newspaper. Although the feature was eventually killed (too few contributors; too much whining) there’s a lesson in its popularity: The power of a confessional is extremely popular, and anonymity leads to honesty, for good or ill.

Other news organizations, including BuzzFeed, WNYC and CNN have all used voicemail to help their audience open up about sensitive subjects.

Letters (real and electronic): Reporters and editors gathered around my desk excitedly during my internship at The Sacramento Bee when I got my first letter from Folsom State Prison. It was apparently something of a newsroom tradition — having a prison 30 minutes away meant that we often got mail from convicts who insisted they were wrongly convicted and wanted us to look into their case.

This letter was mildly upsetting, but I still read it back-to-front — as did several other people in the newsroom. The lesson? Snail mail takes up physical space in our lives and is harder to ignore. When a reader takes the time to write something longhand and put a stamp on it, it’s probably worthwhile to give it a hard look. That certainly paid off for The New York Times when Donald Trump’s tax returns showed up in the mailroom one day.

And don’t forget to set up electronic mailboxes, too. SecureDrop is a great way to receive anonymous tips from readers.

Membership: If readers love your brand, or individual personalities in your newsroom, membership can be a great way to bring your audience closer to the newsroom. Live chats, Slack channels and gifts are all excellent ways to bring people into your orbit.

Crowdsourcing: Here’s how the typical story is written. A reporter has an idea about what deserves attention. Then, they call the usual suspects — city officials and local citizens with a public profile. Then, the news and quotes go into a story that few people will read and even fewer will care about.

One solution: Use social media (or tools like Hearken) to determine what people in your community care about. Then focus your efforts on those people and their questions.

Direct public offering: Want to give your audience a piece of the action? Ask them to invest — literally. At least one news organization, the Bay Area’s Berkeleyside, has asked its readers to buy chunks of the company to keep it afloat. This model was pioneered by the Green Bay Packers — one of the most successful NFL franchises, and gives readers a financial stake in the news organization’s success.

Subscription: Kind of like a direct public offering, without the equity. Subscribers may feel more invested in your journalism — and more likely to share it — if they’re helping pay for it.

Chatbots: Don’t have time to have a back-and-forth with every reader? You don’t have to! The rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning is empowering news organizations around the world to create chatbots that can dialog with readers and help them find the news they want. The record for these bots has been spotty thus far, but expect this tool to improve with time.

Tours: No matter how convincing virtual reality gets, there’s no substitute for seeing a place with your own eyes and meeting people firsthand. Newsroom tours can deepen your connection with the community and foster spontaneous ways for the public to engage.

Internships: Honolulu Civil Beat used its internship program to bring a community member into the newsroom to learn more about the business and craft of journalism. What’s a better way to build the public’s trust in journalism than having them produce it for you?

Partner with the community: The community internship program is similar to an approach undertaken by City Bureau, a Chicago-based nonprofit that connects professional journalists with community members to tell their stories. More facetime with the public means more news literacy and, perhaps, additional support.

Events: Events are a great moneymaking idea for a few reasons. They elevate your outlet’s profile in the community. They give your audience a chance to see and interact with your journalists. And they make the process of journalism more transparent — people can see how conduct interviews, for example, and they can observe reporter-source relationships firsthand.

Give away your journalism: Many nonprofit news organizations, including ProPublica, The Marshall Project and the Center for Public Integrity, spend months tackling investigations in the public interest and give them away to partner organizations. Should public-spirited for-profit news organizations do the same? In recent months, news organizations in San Francisco and Philadelphia have teamed up to examine issues such as homelessness and prisoner re-entry.

Sell (or give away) your data: ProPublica has launched a data store that has pulled in more than $200,000 to date. Many news organizations collect government data as a matter of course, so why not follow the ProPublica model and sell it (or offer it to the public for free).

Notifications, notifications, notifications: Mobile alerts, email alerts and web alerts are all fodder for instant engagement. Get users to opt-into alerts on Chrome, mobile apps and newsletters so you’re directly in front of them when big news breaks.

Comments: Many news organizations have gotten rid them, but online comments still have major champions in the news industry. Comment advocates contend that the spaces below (or alongside) stories are crucial spaces for reader engagement.

Slack channels: The Washington Post, Gimlet Media, Poynter and Nieman Lab have all established Slack channels to instant message with die-hard fans. Although it’s tough to build vibrant communities on Slack, chat rooms enable instant feedback and lively exchanges.

Live video: You can’t get facetime with everyone, so Facebook Live will have to do. Apps like Periscope, Facebook Live and Meerkat (remember that?) allow you to broadcast the inner workings of your newsroom without devoting time to things like editing and post-production effects.

Talk to them: There’s no technological tool or marketing scheme that can take the place of a face-to-face conversation. If you really want to know what people in the community think about your newsroom, knock on some doors, shake some hands and find out for yourself.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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