This is one in a series of blog posts from the fourth ONA class of MJ Bear Fellows, three journalists under 30 who are expanding the boundaries of digital news. Fellow Anika Anand is Director of Product at Chalkbeat, an education news network based in New York City. Apply for the 2015 fellowship here.
Note: This blog is the first in a two-part series. The second post was published on Thursday, June 11.
In the premier season of the new podcast “StartUp,” host Alex Blumberg briefly discussed the success of “Serial,” the other extremely successful podcast startup launched at the same time. “If you’re listening to the sound of my voice right now and you have not heard of ‘Serial,’” Blumberg said, “you occupy a very strange niche in culture, and I’d like to hear more about you, frankly.”
As a journalist, it was incredible for me to think that anyone listening to “StartUp” hadn’t followed “Serial.” But assumptions about our audience often turn out not to be true. Blumberg learned this lesson after he received a stream of tweets from people who said they had never heard about “Serial” until it was mentioned on his podcast.
“That’s one of things I’ve been wrestling with,” Blumberg said. “In this new age, how do you build audience? And what I’ve realized is [there are] bunches of random ways that you can find the things that you like, which is both exhilarating and a little bit perplexing as somebody who is trying to create a business around this.”
During a recent project at Chalkbeat, an audience research study to learn more about who our readers are and how to grow our audience, we’ve learned this lesson, as well. We structured our research into four parts:
An e-mail survey of Chalkbeat readers
Phone call interviews with “influencer” readers
An e-mail survey of non-Chalkbeat readers
In-person focus groups
I’ll write more about the process in another post, including why we chose these particular research methods and what we’d do differently next time. Here, I’ll highlight some of our early takeaways about who our readers are, what kind of stories they want and how we can use that understanding to grow our audience.
Segmenting the audience by roles is useful, but we should also consider their level of engagement.
Chalkbeat is a single-subject news site that covers local educational change. Because of that, our assumption has always been that our primary target audience is people who are professionally linked to education — educators, principals and policymakers.
But through our audience research we learned two things. First, just because you’re part of that professional audience doesn’t mean you are extremely engaged in education issues. Second, there are readers outside of this professional audience who want a high-level look at what’s happening in their local schools, including parents and even some voters without any direct connection to schools.
Both lessons have implications for the way we think about writing stories for different audiences. Instead of solely thinking about readers’ roles in education (What would a teacher want to know from this story? What would a parent want to know?), we should also be considering how engaged they are. That’s why after our audience research we broke our readers down into these categories to inform our distribution strategies:
Power readers: People who need to read our information every day to stay informed and do their jobs well. These are mostly leaders in education.
Engaged readers: People who need to read our information occasionally so they’re up to date on what’s happening in their worlds. I see this as being the vast majority of teachers and parents.
Curious readers: People who believe in the power of education and genuinely want to see it improve for students, but don’t have a direct connection to it in their daily lives. I think of these as readers of the major metro daily papers and local public radio listeners.
One example of how we’ve used this new audience breakdown is to inform our e-mail newsletter strategy. We currently have a daily e-mail newsletter that we know our “power readers” read religiously. After concluding our research, we launched a weekly newsletter, which we want to use to grow our “engaged readers” audience. To reach our “curious readers,” we want to continue to find opportunities to appear on local radio and TV shows and work with local newspapers and blogs to share our stories.
Our goal of writing more stories that are more accessible to broader audiences won’t just serve new “curious” and “engaged” readers; it will serve our “power users.”
We often debate how “wonky” our coverage should be. How many stories should we write for the education nerds who live and breathe this stuff ? How many should we write for those who care about education improving, but who are not immersed in the daily policy and practice debate about how to make that happen?
We learned from our audience research that all of our readers, including our power readers, would benefit from more accessible stories. In fact, our power readers appreciate it when we write zoomed-out stories that explain the broader issues and include more engaging details, like stories from people on the ground in schools. As one power reader told us: “I use you as a news source so I can find out what other education people are thinking. Often times, you get quotes from sources that I don’t necessarily have access to, and it gives me some insight into what other people are thinking.”
Our job should be to engage in a two-way dialogue with readers, and encourage them to do the same with each other.
Education professionals repeatedly told us how easy it is for them to get caught in their own little bubbles at their schools and organizations. One educator we spoke with said, “I find it very hopeful when I read about another place that has faced a similar issue and here’s how they’ve overcome it. It breaks the isolation to know what’s happening elsewhere.”
The surveys and our focus groups also pointed to a huge appetite for in-person events that didn’t just involve a dump of content knowledge like a panel discussion, but interactive activities that encourage networking between readers.
While it’s great that journalists are realizing that communication between newsrooms and readers should be a two-way street, we have to remember to encourage conversation between our readers as well.
We have a lot more takeaways that we’re still digesting, but for now, these were the major ones that have influenced our audience growth strategy.
In my next post, I’ll lay out the process we used to gather our information and hope that others will chime in with their own suggestions and best practices.
Click here to read my second post in the two-part series.
Fellow Anika Anand is Director of Product at Chalkbeat and was previously a reporter for GothamSchools. She has been published on California Watch, MSNBC.com, Salon, the New York Daily News and others. She graduated from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism with a Master’s degree in business and economics reporting and studied journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.