Editors note: This article was originally published on October 19 on Entrepreneurial Journalism, created by James Breiner. You can sign up for his newsletter here.

Any news media entrepreneur who is trying to create a sustainable business model should keep these three things in mind:

  • Build a media community, not an audience
  • Focus on relationships, not scale
  • Measure engagement, not page views

What follows is, first, my message during a panel discussion on Oct. 19 at the NewsRewired conference, followed by the comments of my fellow panelists: Edmund Davison, head of growth at Tortoise Media in the UK; Esther Alonso, membership and development director at elDiario.es in Spain; and Irene McKisson, co-founder and principal executive of Arizona Luminaria in the US. The title of our session was “Find out what your audiences value and want to pay for”.

What it means to build a media community, not an audience.

A media community is a group of loyal users who share an interest in a particular topic or geographic area. They may share a native language or ethnicity. They likely share certain values and ethics. They trust a publication because they feel like members of a club that values them as members. An audience is passive, but a community is active. A community can be mobilized to accomplish things for everyone’s benefit.

What it means to focus on relationships, not scale. 

For a publisher, it’s more important to have a small number people feel an intimate connection with a news publication than to count a huge number of people visiting the site or app. A publisher needs to create events and other opportunities for people to feel part of the news-gathering and publishing process.

What it means to measure engagement, not page views. 

The vast majority of page views and unique users of even the best known media brands are fly-bys, casual visitors. They arrive by chance or a misleading referral and leave. These visitors add to the thousands or millions of visits that publishers like to brag about. But these big numbers do not mean that multitudes of people value their content. The core, loyal users–the ones who truly value the work and are the most likely to pay–might be only 10% of that total.

Better measures of engagement are:

  • Frequency of visits. Look at the percentage of users who visit at least 10 times in a month. These people are finding value and coming back to your work. This percentage is easily tracked on Google Analytics and other tools.
  • Time on site. If users are spending at least 3 minutes per visit, that indicates a more-than-superficial engagement.
  • Pages per visit. Users who average at least three pages per visit are finding many things of value.
  • Scrolling activity. Some analytics tools allow a publisher to see how deeply a user went into a text article, what they paused on, what captured their attention.
  • Level of interactivity. Among the relevant indicators: do users comment on and share content, do they sign up for newsletters, do they answer questionnaires, do they suggest articles and provide news tips. And, more importantly, are your responding to them and thanking them.
  • And the best metric of engagement is whether they pay for a subscription, an event, or an e-commerce product.


News publishers whose activities follow these three guidelines–build a community, focus on relationships, and measure engagement–will come much closer to identifying what their target community values and what they are likely to pay for.

That’s the good news. The less-good news is that there is no simple formula that works for every publication. Each one will have to find its own solution that depends on the unique characteristics of its target market and the talents of its own staff.

The other challenging piece of news is that there is more competition than ever from publications that seek to have users pay for their product. During the pandemic, many publishers that had relied on advertising saw their revenues plummet. For the first time, they sought digital subscriptions, and these offers may compete directly with media entrepreneurs.

All of this emphasizes the importance of offering content that is unique, highly differentiated from anything else available in the media marketplace. Publications that maintain that difference and serve their community well should be able to remain viable over the long term.

What my fellow panelists said

Samuel Ketch, writing for News Rewired, covered the session and wrote summaries of the other three panelists’ presentations as well as mine. Below are excerpts from his article.

Audio stories drive subscriptions

Tortoise is a UK-based slow news company built on three key principles: slow news, open journalism, and quality over quantity. The second principle, open journalism, includes ThinkIns and Open News meetings which allow their community to be part of the editorial process. 

Tortoise‘s head of growth, Edmund Davison, said that the editorial team now focuses on one lead investigation per week, published as an audio piece, after finding out that multiple long-reads did not sit well with their audience under 40 which makes up more than half of their readers.

Paying members can now listen to the latest episode on the publisher’s app on Monday, ad-free, while non-paying listeners have to wait until Friday to access the piece with ads on other platforms. Early access and ad-free listening proved to be strong incentives for users to subscribe.

The audience values scoops

Esther Alonso, membership and development director for elDiario.es, highlighted the importance of experimenting when tailoring your news product to your audience needs.

The main goal for elDiario.es is to reconnect journalism with society. The publication has achieved 50 per cent of income from memberships since its launch. The average revenue per user for the company is €6,82 (£5.77), and they now have a total of 61,400 members, 15,700 free members and 212,000 registered users.

The membership growth has been constant but not linear. The site saw influxes of subscribers after publishing important investigations and scoops which confirmed that the readers value exclusives and high-quality journalism.

The constant audience growth and very high retention rate (less than 1 per cent of subscribers cancel) also mean that the publication must constantly innovate. The subscriptions market in Spain is getting more crowded so the competition for paying users is becoming tougher.

Write for ‘Jessica’

Irene McKisson is co-founder and principal executive of non-profit news and community organisation Arizona Luminaria. To launch this new product that aimed to inform readers about things to do in and around Tucson, McKisson and her team created an audience persona–Jessica–based on surveys and interviews with users. 

“Our team of three went through 25 one-on-one interviews and we listed out on sticky notes everything we knew to be true about the readers that we talked to.”

They found out that most of the readers were on Facebook and Instagram but not on Twitter. Another category was news values and readers expressed their desire to see more local stories. They found out that people were getting news from push alerts on their phones so they built an app that allowed them to do just that.

The audience research also uncovered that people trusted their friends and were not keen on “that kind of newspaper didactic tone”, so the journalists could tailor their tone and voice to this audience need.

All this helped the team create the persona they named Jessica, who “embodied the reader” they were trying to reach. Having this persona allowed the team to be consistent with their voice, news judgement and branding and marketing, which contributed to the success of the project.

Photo by Jaime Lopes on Unsplash