As the coronavirus ravages local journalism outlets across America — resulting in countless layoffs, furloughs and closures — it has laid bare how much we rely on local news to inform our lives. If national media is our window into the country, then local media is our window into community. More than that, local media is an integral part of every community.
That’s why our team at API has sent advisers into U.S.-based newsrooms, ranging from nonprofits and startups to legacy newspapers and public radio stations, to support their efforts to reach or maintain sustainability in the long term. Thanks to a 2017-19 grant from the Knight Foundation, our advisers consulted 23 outlets on challenges involving analytics, listening and community engagement, digital subscriptions, social strategy, newsletters, visual journalism and much more. The advisers were professional journalists, as well as folks working in the news media business more broadly.
Amy, our vice president and senior director, spearheaded this work. She created the infrastructure for API’s adviser initiative, collaborating closely with participating newsrooms to determine their needs and skill levels, then matching them with the appropriate adviser. This process was extensive, as we chose our advisers carefully after much consultation with the newsrooms.
As a result of these adviser engagements, news organizations were able to make changes critical to their sustainability, including launching a newsletter aimed at driving digital subscriptions, reaching more community members through social media, and introducing key listening and engagement strategies into their work. We wanted to showcase the outcomes of several of the adviser matches, to share a bit of what news organizations learned along the way.
Out of the 23 outlets, we are profiling three:
- The Pilot, a 100-year-old biweekly community newspaper that covers Moore County, North Carolina
- the Detroit Free Press, the largest daily newspaper covering Detroit, Michigan
- Santa Cruz Local, a new local journalism platform that reports on public policy in Santa Cruz County, California.
Amy chose these three because they’re characteristic of media outlets across the country and the types of challenges they’re experiencing. The Pilot represents long-standing local, independent papers that have strong relationships with their communities but don’t have the modern infrastructure to support a digital strategy. The Free Press represents large metropolitan dailies looking to better serve communities they’ve historically overlooked or even harmed. Santa Cruz Local represents local digital startups that are taking fresh approaches to engaging their audience(s) but are limited in terms of staffing and resources. These case studies provide a wealth of insights that other outlets can apply to their own contexts and that will help our industry at large.
API’s consultations were largely in-person, during which advisers engaged with a newsroom leader or small teams. Leading up to the visits, advisers spent time preparing by understanding API’s desired outcomes and the participating outlets’ needs. Post-visit, the API team conducted exit interviews and surveys with both the newsrooms and advisers. Anita then conducted more in-depth interviews with the three featured outlets — The Pilot, the Free Press and Santa Cruz Local — about their experiences before writing the following profiles.
With our team’s expertise and proven success in identifying newsrooms’ needs and matching them with the most appropriate adviser, resulting in real outcomes, API’s next steps include seeking additional partners who value how this work leads to stronger local news and information. We are grateful for pilot support from the NC Local News Lab Fund to make similar adviser matches in North Carolina, where we have shifted to virtual advising engagements due to the coronavirus. We welcome opportunities for new partners and funding sources to help us provide more of these types of valuable consultations. We hope you’ll support our work. For more information, please contact Amy.
How The Pilot used reader data to boost digital subscriptions
The Pilot is a 100-year-old newspaper that covers Moore County, North Carolina, and publishes biweekly. As of August 2020, it had a print circulation of 10,000, while ThePilot.com attracted 155,000 unique visitors and its daily email newsletter had 21,000 subscribers.
After “several years of minimal subscription sales,” The Pilot wants to increase and retain digital subscribers.
- News outlets that have a strong track record of serving and connecting with local residents must not underestimate the strength of their position in their respective communities.
- Value your journalism and ask users to pay a reasonable price for it.
- It’s not necessary to immediately transform your entire print-subscriber base into digital subscribers, but you should get a foothold in the market to grow.
Given its longstanding presence in Moore County, The Pilot has strong ties to its community — so much so that the newspaper’s old-school approach to engaging local residents can still serve as a modern playbook for how media outlets today can effectively engage their audiences and maintain sustainability through the years (not to mention during a crisis like COVID-19). In one century, The Pilot only has had six publishers, compared with a neighboring newspaper that had six in just two years. Current publisher David Woronoff is celebrating his 24th anniversary at The Pilot, while his two predecessors immediately before him stayed for 28 years each.
“That kind of longevity, I believe, makes for a better newspaper. I think the more accessible we are to our community, the more accountable we are. The more accountable we are, the better journalism we produce,” Woronoff said. “We’ve been named the best community newspaper in America five times in the last 20 years. You don’t get that by accident.”
Woronoff added that everyone at the company, from the ad department to the accounting department, are expected to be out connecting with their fellow residents. The Pilot’s long-term success, according to the publisher, is due to this authenticity and accessibility.
“Every member of our staff is deputized to be out in the community. We all live here,” Woronoff explained. “It’s a small town. So, you know, people come up to me at the grocery store, they call me, they text me, they email me, they stop me on the street. If we aren’t doing our jobs, they’re not going to be shy and let me know.”
“If people feel comfortable calling you and talking to you, you’re going to get more news. And the more news you get, the more people will call.”
Despite The Pilot’s strong readership and connection to its community, however, the newspaper struggled with digital subscriptions simply because it lacked the tech infrastructure to support a digital subscriber strategy. Part of this strategy includes segmenting a publication’s overall audience into smaller groups, so The Pilot can better identify and serve a particular group’s needs; that also incentivizes audience members to pay for news coverage because it’s tailored to them.
Before API consultant Steve Yaeger came on board, The Pilot’s staffers still saw their audience as an amorphous mass of Moore County residents.
“We’re an old-school community newspaper,” Woronoff said, adding that Moore County is largely a community of retirees and young veterans. “Bottom line, we don’t know that much about our readers.… We know precious little about them.”
“Every newspaper in America has got that problem.”
He said his team did have access to analytics platforms that provided basic data on unique visitors, page views, sessions and more, but they “just didn’t spend a lot of time looking at it.”
- Analyze data about The Pilot’s subscribers and segment them according to shared attributes.
- Identify differences between print and digital audience segments to determine the growth of The Pilot’s print versus digital readership over time.
- Walk through the digital subscriber journey for another publication (in this case, the case study was The Star Tribune, as Yaeger is the Minnesota-based newspaper’s senior VP of circulation and chief marketing officer).
- Assign a staffer to focus completely on subscriber acquisition, ensuring that print and digital strategies complement each other.
- Replace existing meter and payment technology.
- Other recommendations:
- Remove “day pass” option for digital subscribers.
- Shorten email newsletters to drive more engagement to ThePilot.com.
- Increase frequency of email newsletter from twice weekly to every weekday.
What they looked like in practice
Yaeger requested subscriber data, and plotted every digital and print subscriber onto a map of Moore County. He then used a visualization tool to analyze the data and break down The Pilot’s audiences into 70 different categories. Finally, Yaeger compared and contrasted the outlet’s print segments versus its digital segments.
Before Yaeger’s analysis, Woronoff said, “We thought they were one and the same.”
“Based on where the location was, he had zip code, census data comparing the two,” the publisher continued. “Average digital subscribers in [their] early 40s; average print subscriber was in his mid- to late-60s. It sort of totally surprised us.”
“That’s, again, the technology issue. We didn’t have any way of knowing and just assumed: If you read us online, you read us in print.”
Before The Pilot can build on its progress, the outlet has to refresh its tech infrastructure, according to Woronoff. In addition to developing new websites for desktop and mobile, the publisher wants to install a dynamic paywall and enable recurring payments for subscribers. Currently, The Pilot does have some technology, including a paywall and the ability to accept digital subscriptions; but Woronoff says the payment process is “not very elegant or frictionless,” so they’re upgrading those systems.
He adds that the publication gained 300 digital subscribers from March to April as a result of marketing “the old-fashioned way.” Leading up to this boost, The Pilot promoted digital subscriptions on its website’s homepage, in its nightly Facebook Live broadcast and in its five-day-a-week newsletter.
- The Pilot’s readership tripled during the pandemic.
- Digital subscribers increased from 100 to 400 (+300) during a six-week period from mid-March to end of April, and has hovered around that number throughout the pandemic.
- The Pilot’s daily email newsletter, which has focused on coronavirus news since March, now has an open rate of 57 percent (up from around 30 percent).
- The Pilot’s daily Facebook live newscast, which summarizes what’s happening in Moore County every evening, attracts several thousand views, on average.
How the Detroit Free Press partnered to engage underserved communities
The Detroit Free Press is the largest daily newspaper covering Detroit, Michigan. At 189 years old, it is the local paper of record. The Free Press’ website, Freep.com, attracted 8.8 million monthly visitors in 2019. That same year, the newspaper had a daily print circulation of 131,000 and a Sunday circulation of 925,000, both down from 2018 levels.
The Free Press wants to improve its relationships with and coverage of underserved communities in Detroit through audience engagement.
- Legacy media outlets should partner with community-driven journalism organizations to help them fill in gaps in coverage.
- Consistency and authenticity are essential to regaining the trust of underserved communities, so newsrooms should create an inclusive work environment that affords respect to their own journalists from these groups.
- Some audience engagement efforts will succeed, and others will fail, but journalists should persevere to develop strong relationships with underserved communities in the long term.
The Free Press’ Executive Editor Peter Bhatia is committed to expanding the audiences it serves, according to community engagement director Jewel Gopwani, making it much easier to integrate audience engagement practices into the newspaper’s editorial process.
“At the Free Press now for three years, [my boss] made it a priority to expand [our] audience to underserved audiences and people we weren’t reaching before. And that’s taken various iterations,” she explains, adding that having the support of management increases the likelihood that Free Press journalists across the board will adopt these practices, which are uncommon in a legacy newsroom environment.
In addition, Gopwani says the paper’s journalists are already comfortable with outreach and interacting with the public to some degree, so engagement shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for them. “The fact that a lot of Free Press reporters and editors are viewed as experts in their field and in their coverage areas has made people really comfortable about representing the organization and talking to people and, in some cases, bring people together for conversation.”
As Detroit’s longstanding newspaper of record, the Free Press has both state-wide and national name recognition. This reputation enables it to more easily form partnerships with other local organizations, including community-driven media outlets that focus on topics or communities where the Free Press doesn’t have as much capacity; and together, they can collaborate to better serve all of Detroit.
Case in point: This year, the Free Press is partnering with Outlier Media and BridgeDetroit. Outlier runs an SMS service to take questions about audience needs, adapting it for COVID-19 questions, and now for questions about the election. BridgeDetroit, a new nonprofit journalism and engagement organization that collaborates with Detroiters to cover issues that matter most to them, is building a model to continually gauge reader priorities.
The relationships with nonprofits help the Free Press “address issues that in some cases have been on our radar — but this helped us get to it faster — and in other cases, weren’t on our radar, but we’re covering things that people are finding important,” Gopwani says. “We know that we’re actually meeting audience needs.”
Over the past few years, the Free Press has methodically built a solid foundation for reporting on underserved communities that eventually led to the BridgeDetroit partnership, according to Gopwani. It started by launching beats that focused on Metro Detroit, including poverty, opioid addiction through a “human” lens and how former inmates are reintegrating into society. Also, a new Report for America fellow is focusing on economic mobility, as well as who’s included and excluded in Detroit’s post-pandemic recovery. Gopwani calls these steps “building blocks” that formed the foundation of the BridgeDetroit partnership and moved the Free Press team toward more fulsome coverage of Detroit and its many different communities.
Like many legacy media outlets, the Free Press is contending with dwindling resources and traditional perspectives that pose challenges to the newsroom’s desire to expand its coverage areas.
This major gap is “something we’ve lived with, but it’s something we’re trying to change,” Gopwani, who’s worked at the Free Press for more than 17 years, explains. She says major metropolitan newspapers in general need to get better at reflecting the communities they serve in their entirety. “Everybody needs to work at that.”
Decades of overlooking underserved groups has hurt the Free Press’ relationships with Detroiters from these communities. During a listening event in December 2019, local small business owners told the Free Press team that they “just don’t see themselves in the paper, and they don’t think they’re gonna see themselves in the paper,” Gopwani adds.
A shrinking staff means Free Press journalists are taking on more work and don’t have a lot of capacity to engage community members outside of their regular reporting duties. That has been exacerbated by the paper’s mandated furloughs due to COVID-19, with news staffers taking week-long furloughs every month since April. “It’s hard to get everybody rowing in the same boat. Especially right now when everybody’s working incredible hours, and they’re so stressed out trying to hit deadlines,” Gopwani says. “The thing is that we just have to try to do it as much as we can. And it may not be every single person, but we know that this is important and we need to keep at it.”
- Audit news coverage for diversity and representation.
- Improve communication between newsroom staff by addressing any internal equity-related conflicts.
- Brainstorm ways that Free Press journalists can better serve underrepresented communities, so they can rebuild trust before reporting there.
- Invite community members from underserved groups to listening events; ask them questions like, “How would you describe how you’re portrayed in the Free Press?” and “How would you like to be portrayed in the Free Press?”
- Create an open work environment that empowers all journalists, especially those from underserved communities, to speak out whenever they feel coverage is inadequate.
What they looked like in practice
API consultant Letrell Crittenden helped the Free Press host a listening session for around 20 small business owners in Detroit, which Gopwani says could easily become the Free Press’ template for how it approaches audience engagement. (Crittenden is a professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and co-published a piece earlier this year about how to make news in small towns more inclusive.)
After receiving negative feedback from the group about the paper’s lack of representation, Gopwani visited a coffee shop owned by one of the attendees, chatted with the owner and bought a strudel. That marked the start of a meaningful relationship, she says, and the coffee shop eventually hosted a Free Press listening group that met regularly at local businesses before COVID-19 hit.
One of Crittenden’s key points is that “this isn’t transactional and people need to feel that,” Gopwani continues. In other words, Free Press staff shouldn’t enter listening sessions already thinking they know what needs to be covered; instead, they should have a dialogue with community members.
One barrier that the Free Press had to overcome was psychological. Given its strained relationships with underserved communities, some staff were intimidated by the prospect of engaging audiences that may not trust the newspaper. “That, for us, is difficult — probably one of the hardest things,” Gopwani says.
Crittenden reassured the team by acknowledging that not all of the Free Press’ engagement efforts would be successful, but that its journalists should still forge ahead and be confident in their follow-through.
The Free Press team also has to do some self-reflection, according to Crittenden, and listen to each other before going out to listen to underserved communities. If they don’t walk the walk internally and ignore staff who flag problematic coverage of these communities, their engagement efforts will likely fail.
Crittenden said it’s important for the Free Press to empower its journalists to approach management when they think the paper is making a misstep, according to Gopwani. “It’s making sure that reporters and editors across the board feel comfortable speaking up, and knowing that they can privately — or not necessarily privately, but with their colleagues — have these conversations, and that they’ll be listened to and taken seriously,” she explains.
- Over the past few months, the Free Press has been investing in producing stories about “everyday life” in Detroit, particularly in the context of the pandemic, which have helped it begin to connect and build trust with underrepresented communities. Editors have intentionally kept most of these stories outside of the paywall so that they have more of a chance to reach people who normally wouldn’t rely on the Free Press for news. Doing that allows the Free Press to create a track record of better representing communities of color before asking them to subscribe. Some results:
- The few stories designated for subscribers only have performed above average.
- Stories outside of the paywall have been successful in terms of page views, including:
- How COVID-19 has affected businesses that do weddings for multicultural brides
- How four Detroit Black-owned businesses have been affected by the pandemic
- One story on a Detroit native buying and rehabbing homes in his childhood neighborhood exceeded their median page views “by many times,” says Gopwani. About 25 percent of the traffic originated from search and social, which indicates that it is reaching “audiences who might not normally turn to us.”
- The listening engagement has helped the paper create new beats aimed at serving communities of color: It has hired a reporter to develop a new beat focusing on Black, Latino and immigrant business owners and nonprofits in the region. That addition to the Free Press’ staff and beat structure came after Crittenden’s visit when he led a listening session with Black small business owners.
- In August, the Free Press published an audit of its staff diversity (based on race/ethnicity and gender) that compared its staff demographics to that of Detroit and southeast Michigan. At the same time, Executive Editor Peter Bhatia committed to parity between the paper’s staff and the communities it covers by 2025. (This effort is part of a company-wide commitment at Gannett.)
- The paper has also announced it will limit using mug shots in covering crime “to counter the inaccurate vision of crime they can create,” as Bhatia wrote in a recent column.
How Santa Cruz Local proved the value of community engagement to staff
Founded in January 2019, Santa Cruz Local is a local news platform that produces a podcast, newsletter and website about public policy in Santa Cruz County, California. As of August 2020, Santa Cruz Local had 592 paying members, its newsletter had 4,877 subscribers, its podcast attracted 1,000 regular listeners and its website captured 64,000 unique monthly users.
After some Santa Cruz Local staffers initially questioned the purpose of community engagement, CEO Kara Meyberg Guzman wanted to help every member of her team understand its value and show how it can be woven into the outlet’s editorial process.
- News outlets that prioritize community engagement can see a boost in their audience revenue.
- Before introducing community engagement (or any new strategy) into your editorial process, it’s essential to get your entire team on the same page and to get their buy-in.
- News outlets that are cash- or resource-strapped should leverage digital engagement over in-person engagement; that has become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Journalism startups that employ seasoned journalists who have existing community ties should tap into their local knowledge and networks.
Santa Cruz Local’s current team is small, with just five people, including a community engagement intern. But its size is also an advantage, according to co-founder Stephen Baxter. Unlike larger, corporate media outlets that are “institutionalized in their ways,” startups can introduce a new approach to journalism without having to convince large legacy newsrooms to adopt it, he says. “Luckily, we’re not [large], and we could just do whatever we want.”
Both Baxter and Meyberg Guzman are familiar with corporate-owned media, having previously worked at the local newspaper, Santa Cruz Sentinel, as a reporter and the managing editor, respectively. Baxter had worked at the Sentinel for six years, developing deep relationships with community members in Santa Cruz County as a journalist who covered police, fire, courts and breaking news. And he’d been a daily newspaper reporter for more than 12 years.
“[The Sentinel] is an institution. It’s been here for over 160 years. It’s legacy — totally legacy,” Meyberg Guzman explains. “What [Stephen] brings to this organization is that he is the hardest-hitting reporter in our county. He has been doing this for many years, and he’s a great reporter and editor.”
Despite being recognized as California’s best newspaper in 2012 and 2010, the Sentinel continued to shrink in size. A diminishing workforce coupled with mounting burnout caused Baxter to quit the Sentinel in 2016 and take a few years off from journalism before he reconnected with Meyberg Guzman. “She wanted to do something different, so we started this thing up about a year and a half ago — and it’s gotten a lot of momentum,” Baxter explains.
Although Meyberg Guzman wanted to prioritize community engagement from the outset, she faced skepticism from other team members who didn’t understand its value until API consultant jesikah maria ross started advising them in October 2019. (Ross is the senior community engagement strategist at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento and author of “JMR’s Participatory Journalism Playbook”.) The CEO herself admits she “wasn’t really sure what community engagement was” at first, but was drawn to the practice because it seemed to align with Santa Cruz Local’s mission and vision.
“Before even we met with jesikah, we weren’t all totally aligned on what community engagement is, and what the need for it is and how it fits into your organization,” Meyberg Guzman says.
Baxter was the most vocal skeptic, expressing concern that community engagement would detract from the most important part of their work: reporting. At the time, only he and Meyberg Guzman were reporting for Santa Cruz Local.
“I gave her a little pushback because … I wasn’t totally clear about the difference between community engagement and reporting,” Baxter says. “When I went to [journalism] school and graduated in 2005, that wasn’t really on the table, this sort of thing. So my first reaction was: Well, that’s what reporting is.”
His perspective changed after Santa Cruz Local hosted listening events with hundreds of community members leading up to California’s presidential primary election in March. After attending some of these events, Baxter started seeing community engagement more as a “baseline for your reporting” rather than an extra unnecessary task.
“It clicked for me then, I think, because you’re talking to people — random sources — but not in a transactional sense. It’s not for a story you have to file that day. It’s more relaxed conversations with people,” he says, adding that community engagement encourages journalists to talk to people with whom they may not typically engage. “As a daily reporter, sometimes you’re so busy flying around, trying to get your story done, that you don’t really get to step back and do that kind of thing.”
- Through facilitated conversations and activities, make sure your entire team understands and is aligned on community engagement before pursuing it.
- Create a document that reminds you of your mission, including a statement describing your publication’s commitment to community engagement.
- Develop a quarterly editorial and business plan, scheduled out over 12 months, to ensure you work at a sustainable pace.
- Segment your audience to identify communities you currently reach, as well as those you want to reach but don’t; then develop unique engagement strategies for these segments.
- Under-resourced startups should focus on digital engagement because it’s more cost-effective.
What they looked like in practice
Because the Santa Cruz Local team initially had a loose idea of community engagement, ross wanted to solidify their understanding by getting everyone to develop a community engagement mission statement together.
“She helped our entire team align and recognize the value of the engagement and really invest in it as an organization. And she gave us the tools — ‘this is what it looks like’ — and fine-grain detail and advice, too,” Meyberg Guzman explains. “[The] big picture: This is what we’re doing and this is why we’re doing it.”
To establish a basic definition of community engagement, ross helped the team differentiate between outreach and community listening. Before ross started working with them, Meyberg Guzman says, she would attend local events but only ever evangelized about Santa Cruz Local; after ross, however, she started taking the time to listen to community members and ask them questions like: Do you want to hear from this group? What are your biggest priorities? What do you want to read a story about, or listen to an episode about?
“It’s an opportunity. It’s first the listening part and that in and of itself becomes outreach because people are like, ‘Oh, what is this organization? They’re actually listening to me?’ That gives us so much more cred than just saying what we are, who we are, what we do,” Meyberg Guzman adds.
Broadly speaking, Santa Cruz Local’s primary audience is made up of Santa Cruz County residents, especially “older” people, those with higher education, and newspaper readers who also subscribe to the Sentinel. ross helped the team narrow their target audience segments to four groups: Santa Cruz Local’s core base, which it wants to grow “as much as possible”; younger people in their 20s who are engaged in the community; residents living on the east side of the city; and a group they term “working families,” which are low- and middle-income families with children whose parents both work. She recommended that the team focus on listening to one of these segments each quarter of the year.
Due to California’s presidential primary election in March and the upcoming U.S. presidential election, Santa Cruz Local pivoted to focusing on listening to communities where there are hotly contested races. The team also shifted these engagements to virtual, rather than in-person, due to COVID-19. It also wants to prioritize Spanish speakers and marginalized communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. After the November election, the team plans to step back and assess their engagement metrics and revenue to see if their strategy is working.
- Since launching their listening tour in earnest at the beginning of the year and shifting to virtual engagements after COVID-19 hit, Santa Cruz Local’s newsletter subscriber base has grown five-fold to more than 4,800 as of August.
- Paying members more than doubled from 245 in January to 592 in August.
- As of August, Santa Cruz Local’s podcast has around 1,000 regular listeners across platforms.
- As of August, SantaCruzLocal.org attracted 64,000 unique monthly users.