By Lindsay Green-Barber, PhD, Founder & CEO, Impact Architects
Since 1999, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin has hosted the International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), and it is unique among journalism conferences for its international focus and participation. Last month’s ISOJ conference of nearly 500 journalists, researchers, and others from the media industry had a hopeful current running throughout, with panels and conversations about diverse revenue sources for journalism, creative audience engagement, and the importance of this work at a critical moment in living history.

Also hopeful was a through line of respect for audiences as intelligent consumers of news and information (despite being overwhelmed with sources and the 10 million URLs posted to the internet each day), and a shifting of focus to the platforms, algorithms, bots, and trolls that are creating an ecosystem in which misinformation and disinformation are running rampant and spreading rapidly.
Altogether, the takeaway from ISOJ 2018 can be summed up as: “If you build it, they might come.” And, it’s up to the journalistic organizations to figure out who makes up the “they,” and what “it” is they want and need.

Get to know your audience.

Sara Glines, president and publisher at The News & Observer and McClatchy regional publisher for the Carolinas, suggests that while it’s a known principle in business that you need to know your customer or client well in order to be successful, in journalism, the product—editorial content—has been divorced from the business, and so those who are creating the journalism have been doing so without thinking about the needs and wants of their audience. Glines says that journalism needs to do the work of getting to know their audiences so that they can better meet their needs, and ultimately demonstrate the value of the journalism in order to build trust —not to mention revenue streams.
But how does an organization get to “know” its audiences?

Many ISOJ presenters, including Glines, BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith, De Correspondent Founder Rob Wijnberg, and others, expounded on the importance of using data to understand audience behavior. And in order to do this well, organizations must invest in data scientists and designers to generate insights about audience behavior, run tests with design elements, and innovate audience engagement efforts.

But not all audience engagement happens in digital spaces. Darryl Holliday, editorial director and co-founder of the City Bureau, a foundation-supported civic news lab that covers part of Chicago, discussed a creative solution to address a pressing need among community members: Policy decisions in Chicago were being made across a slew of agencies, councils, committees and offices, and it became nearly impossible for an individual to track it all. In order to encourage civic participation and produce more equitable coverage of issues throughout Chicago, City Bureau developed a program called “Documenters,” in which the organization trains (and pays!) community members to attend and report on meetings across the city. Holliday said City Bureau is now working with community members to determine the best form for distributing information so that it is accessible and useful.

There’s money to be made.

Organizations that deeply know their audiences have identified many creative ways to generate revenue. While advertising is still one possible revenue stream, Jim Moroney, publisher and CEO of The Dallas Morning News and chairman, president and CEO of the A.H. Belo Corporation, said we are in the “post-advertising era” of journalism. In addition to advertising, ISOJ participants pointed to membership and/or subscribers, philanthropy, crowdfunding, and events as potential sources of significant revenue.

Glines said that McClatchy has come to the same conclusion; audience development and moving audiences from casual readers to engaged, paying customers is key to long-term sustainability. In the case of McClatchy, Glines said that the organization has developed a series of checklists for reporters to consult during the course of reporting a story in order to ensure that a story has an audience, a plan to engage that audience, and mission alignment.
News Revenue Hub chief operations officer Christina Shih said that nonprofits are building successful revenue streams through membership programs. These programs build direct relationships between an audience person and a journalistic organization, often with email and newsletters as the link. She emphasized that to make the case for monetary support, the organization needs to communicate not only what they do (journalism), but why they do it (mission), who does the work, and the impact of the work.

While much crowdfunding has been project and/or product specific, there are organizations that have used this method to successfully raise general operating funds. For example, Wijnberg said that De Correspondent started with a crowdfunding campaign through which they raised $1.7 million in eight days. And, while ISOJ was taking place, the California hyperlocal digital news outlet Berkeleyside raised more than $1 million in a direct public offering, making it the first news organization in the country to invite readers to become investors.

Newspapers were never only news, why are you?

The New York Times, McClatchy, BuzzFeed and others all made what should be a rather obvious point: newspapers were never only news, and audiences paid for them because they offered not only the news, but lifestyle, entertainment, comedy, crosswords, and more. The New York Times has created dozens, if not hundreds, of newsletters and supplemental digital products for its subscribers focusing on things such as health and wellness, cooking, and games. BuzzFeed began as entertainment and expanded to news, and Ben Smith’s conversation relayed a deep respect for what he calls “sophisticated news consumers” who also enjoy cat memes.

One fascinating panel focused on how global news organizations are using satire to engage with audiences, and especially in challenging political environments where more traditional journalism is potentially deadly. Isam Uraiqat, editor of Alhudood, said that his organization’s satire brings together individuals from across the middle east and north Africa and the ideological spectrum through a Facebook group to have conversations across difference that are based in humor. “The only rule is the jokes have to be funny.” In Kenya, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, satirical shows The XYZ Show, El Chigüire Bipolar, and Magamba TV, respectively, use Daily Show style satirical TV shows to poke fun at parties and politicians across the political spectrum, while bringing to light serious news and information for their audiences. In all cases, the humorists, producers, and reporters reported facing threats from institutions and citizens alike. But they remain committed to their work and said the key to staying safe is to “be really, truly, funny.”

Media manipulation is here to stay.

The field of journalism and information exchange has fundamentally changed. Algorithms manipulate what information people get according to their individual preferences and politics. Joan Donovan of Data and Society points to research and resources the organization has compiled. Their media manipulation research has four tracks: manipulation, digital infrastructures, and political opportunities; media, mobilization, and political identity; manipulation of sociotechnical systems; and the political economy of media and platforms. Data and Society has put out many reports with their findings, including the recent “Dead Reckoning: Navigating Content Moderation After ‘Fake News’” and “Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online.”  And Donovan assures journalists that, if you build a journalistic presence online, the trolls (you know, the people who purposefully sow discord to make people upset) will come.

In order to avoid these pitfalls, Donovan insists that journalists must be familiar with the tactics of trolls, understand the ways platforms’ algorithms contribute to the spread of misinformation, and learn to use the same machine learning and other technologies to inform their own work. In other words, if journalists don’t know where to find the trolls who are quietly building fake Facebook pages, sowing the seeds for future hashtag campaigns, creating new vocabulary to avoid detection of hate speech, and using AI to create masterfully doctored pictures, they are at an immediate disadvantage in the information landscape.

Opportunities for philanthropy

How can philanthropic support for media help organizations connect with new audiences and explore new revenue streams, while simultaneously tackling the big challenges associated with media manipulation?

First, philanthropy can shift its thinking about general operating support. General support means that organizations can cover the specific beats or issues of common interest with funders, while also having the flexibility to produce content that can help to build interest, trust and, ultimately, audiences. All support need not be for general operating, but having an appreciation for the importance of the work that journalism organizations do outside of specific projects and how that work bolsters project specific work is good for everyone.

And, if foundations want to help news organizations truly know their audiences, this endeavor will likely require additional resources. Data scientists, qualitative researchers, audience engagement staff, and others are necessary additions to teams working to understand and engage with audiences.