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How listening can benefit your business model

Much of the discussion on listening and relationship-building focuses on trust and how newsrooms can forge deeper connections with communities who may feel misrepresented, marginalized or misled by the newsroom’s coverage. But how does a culture of listening help a news organization’s bottom line?

Many summit participants admitted they had more work to do to demonstrate listening’s connection to revenue, though a growing body of evidence points to the value of a relationship-centric model. Over time, stronger relationships with distinct communities that newsrooms serve can help grow revenue and contributions from those same communities.

Take the approach that Hearken employs, for example. By helping newsrooms center their reporting around the questions and curiosity of their audience, they’ve produced examples demonstrating how the approach leads to higher on-site engagement for stories created out of audience questions.

Over time, stronger relationships with communities that newsrooms serve can help grow revenue and contributions from those same communities.

For instance, a study with Bitch Media found that readers who connected with their newsroom through Hearken, asking questions and voting on topics for the newsroom to report on, were five times more likely to become paying subscribers.

Using the “funnel” approach, listening to specific communities may help deepen relationships with more people at the “top” of the funnel — those who only rarely or occasionally engage with a news outlet’s content. In turn, establishing those relationships increases the likelihood that individuals will become a subscriber or member.

For instance, WBEZ has used Hearken’s tools to capture more than 10,000 new email addresses from people who asked questions they wanted the newsroom to answer. These new contacts can be an asset for newsrooms to both boost traffic and move potential subscribers through the audience funnel through sustained communication and engagement.

These deeper relationships with more people from your community may also help your newsroom generate other revenue. For example, they may appeal to new advertisers or allow for different sponsorship opportunities online or in print. Listening may also create new, different audiences for events, which in turn could attract fresh sponsors or advertisers.

The Membership Puzzle Project also has produced extensive documentation of a variety of audience-centric approaches to revenue for newsrooms that are intricately linked to building deeper relationships with the communities they serve. MPP’s Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement details how listening in the form of audience research is an essential step to understanding the needs and motivations for potential supporters.

For many newsrooms, particularly nonprofit and public media, sparking real-world impact is a core goal that’s central to funding. Listening to key stakeholders and communities most affected by particular stories or issues can help newsrooms better understand both how they can empower the public more directly with their reporting and track the ways that it sparks action.

In a piece outlining ideas for how newsrooms can think about desired goals and impacts of their work, Julia Haslanger and Stephanie Snyder from Hearken assert a positive feedback loop that can emerge from communicating changes and value sparked by your journalism, particularly stories that are rooted in contributions from the public.

Tracie Powell, a senior fellow with Democracy Fund, also wrote recently about the revenue opportunities that arise when newsrooms bring concrete value to specific communities and help them solve problems in their everyday lives.

Executive Editor Dennis Anderson said the Journal Star hasn’t seen a notable increase in subscriptions from their efforts to build relationships with residents of Peoria’s South Side, but he says they have seen an increase in traffic overall. Regardless of the numbers, Anderson is committed to the time and effort that the Journal Star has spent growing its relationships in the neighborhood. And it’s a model that any newsroom could replicate to build trust with communities through sustained listening and responding to information needs.

WDET, a public radio station in Detroit, is also exploring how journalism that is rooted in listening and community engagement, such as its “Framed by WDET” series, produces value that goes beyond monetary contributions. Courtney Hurtt, WDET’s associate director of product development and business operations, is rethinking what alternative forms of support can look like, including donations of time and space that can help newsrooms reach new stakeholders.

While conversations at the summit emphasized how focused listening practices can improve journalism in the public interest, many participants stressed the importance of tying listening and engagement to revenue and growth opportunities. These are just a few of the emerging efforts that are doing just that, and we’ll have more recommendations in the months to come from API’s growing work on reader revenue.

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