Discover more from Second Rough Draft
Confronting Three Hard Questions About Audience
Concerns from funders we need to take seriously
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
I’ve been spending a good bit of time talking to a range of thoughtful journalism funders recently, and I’m hearing an unease that I think is worth airing.
The context is a positive one: the need for greater philanthropic investment in promising initiatives to address the business crisis of the press, especially at the local level, and the need for solutions to reach readers at scale. Some large incremental commitments to that end are likely coming soon, and that’s great. But the unease is around issues of audience, and I want this week to identify three valid questions being posed, and, I hope, provide one or two helpful observations about each.
Size isn’t everything, but it does matter
Some funders are disappointed that a number of well-funded start-ups are still drawing very modest levels of traffic to their stories. They are wondering if that constitutes sufficient return on their investment. It’s a fair question, I think.
Unless your editorial goal is just to bring new facts to the largest number of people in a community, page views and unique visitors are likely not the best single measure of your effectiveness, and may not be a particularly good measure at all.
But it’s also true that penetration of a very tiny proportion of your target audience should be a source of concern. One partial solution I see, especially for nonprofits, is transparency, perhaps on an annual basis, about traffic levels. If you need to disclose your readership—as print newspapers and magazines once did in order to attract the advertisers who paid the freight—it will act as an important discipline on your work as a whole, leaving you satisfied only with numbers you can satisfactorily explain. It may be that institutional funders should insist on this transparency, as they long have with respect to the identity and level of support of other donors.
Concerns about audience size may be particularly important in markets where new entrants are seeking to eventually supplant legacy players which remain much larger. That is so because the newer entrants must, sooner than later, close much of that readership gap if they are going to realize their own ambitions in service to their communities. In a few cases around the country, it may be that the legacy players will win this contest, and we should not be doctrinaire in opposing those outcomes—or, worse, pretending they are not occurring.
Transparency, however, should cut both ways. Per-story reader counts have long been the dirty legal secret of many of the nation’s best known publications. Total readership or sales numbers fall off very sharply when it comes to smaller or more niche stories. Many legacy titles that now take advantage of the chance to republish or even co-publish stories from newer nonprofits refuse to disclose readership data at the story level even to their partners. This is their commercial prerogative—they may not want advertisers or even their own news staff to see the figures. But funders, who have growing influence with the legacy publishers (many of whom are becoming grant applicants), should use it to push hard for this sort of transparency as well.
Is the impact you are seeking aligned with the audience you are building?
Newer publications also need greater strategic clarity in their own operations when it comes to audience. Investigative journalism, for instance, can still be quite effective if it is only reaching relatively few people, so long as some of them are key decision-makers. Change—“impact”-- can still happen. Explanatory journalism, on the other hand, is simply more effective the more people receive the explanation. Newsrooms need to adapt their audience tactics to make this distinction, and they aren’t always doing that today.
The use of paywalls to cover the bills is another such strategic choice that needs to align with audience goals. Paywalls will inevitably leave you with an audience that is wealthier than that for a free site. In America, that means it will also be whiter and older as well. Does that choice make sense in terms of the audience you want to serve? If it doesn’t, acknowledging that the bills do have to be covered, is it worth the trade-off? How do you know? Run the numbers—and then run them again as you gain more experience.
Bear in mind that journalists tend inevitably to write for the readers they end up having, less so for the ones they aspire to have. Make sure the tail of your current readership doesn’t end up wagging the dog of your editorial aspirations.
Are you sure you’re not just preaching to the choir?
News organizations know an increasing amount about their readers. They’re often eager to tell you about the influence of these readers, sometimes even to talk about the progress they are making on diversifying the audience, including racially. What very, very few will admit is how the political polarization so evident throughout our national life is reflected in the people they reach.
But even if they don’t admit it, preaching to the choir has become a huge challenge for many newsrooms. It limits their impact, and can narrow their horizons (see above on journalists writing for their readers). It can cause them to miss stories altogether, or to fail to understand the complexity of stories they do see.
This is especially so, I think, for stories on which the center of gravity in the country lies between the positions largely accepted by activists. Abortion and immigration are good examples. On abortion, relatively few Americans favor either a ban OR no limits on a woman’s right to choose. On immigration, there is little support for making it easier to cross our borders OR for closing them; the same is true for declaring a mass amnesty for migrants already here OR for deporting them. We should ask ourselves if this reality is reflected in the views in our newsrooms, or in our coverage.
I’m especially concerned that our use of social media has, for some time now, been exacerbating this problem. Too often, we find ourselves with carefully crafted stories, less nuanced headlines and positively cartoonish social media posts—and without sufficient awareness that many people’s impressions of our work is being shaped by the (more widely displayed) worst version rather than the (less read) best. Do we hear how we are presenting ourselves to others? Sometimes not clearly enough.
In raising these questions, which may be uncomfortable especially for some small newsrooms, I am not advocating for clickbait, or urging a race to the bottom or the creation of new hamster wheels for journalists. The quality of stories still matters more than page views. But ultimately we are going to need both— value and reach, the impact that comes from new news and the impact that comes from wide readership. Funders are looking for both, and we should want to deliver.
Thanks for reading Second Rough Draft! Subscribe for free.