Editor’s note: We are republishing an excerpt from the book “Community-Powered Journalism: A Manual for Growth and Sustainability in Independent News” written by Kevin Davis and Mark Lee Hunter. It’s part of the newly launched The Fix editorial series where we’ll republish the most interesting excerpts from the CPJ book together with short Q&As with the authors.

You can buy the whole book here (with a 50% discount for The Fix readers via this promo code: CPJinTheFix22). You can also read our review of the book from April 2021. 

There are lots of ways to listen to a target community, also known as your future and current customer base. Whatever the approach, a process and workflow for listening is necessary. The process can vary, but it needs to accomplish several key goals.

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Every time we touch a member of our target communities, the interaction must be treated as:

• a data point,

• an opportunity to find out more about the individual,

• an opportunity to deliver and communicate the value of our services,

• an opportunity to support or get involved in our work

We will speak often about data in this book, with a disclaimer: Impact metrics are still developing around factors like the number of registered users, their behaviour and, most importantly, how they convert into paying customers. 

In the absence of industry standards, it’s up to every digital publisher to determine what data points they want to track in pursuit of a real-time view of customer and future customer behaviours onsite, on mobile and in the real world. We will define the data we consider essential, and how to collect it, later in this book.

Meanwhile, we are well aware that for many small shops, the cost of data collection and analysis can look steep. But even with limited resources, key insights are possible. 

One of our clients operated both a TV station and a website on a desperately slim resource base. The two teams were separate, and neither regularly shared or discussed their audience data with the other. The television drew a mainly male audience, according to Nielsen data. (Its content was largely political, and men are the majority of the audience for political news.19).

In contrast, the website’s public was mainly female, according to Google Analytics, and the website and social media channels (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Telegram) ran more diverse content than the broadcast. 

At a critical juncture, management reconsidered the data, made the wise decision to forebear from investing in a costly project aimed at widening its national political coverage, and invested instead in programming for young urban working women and mothers. 

Soon after, the company (and the country) got lucky: In national elections, the station decisively beat its rivals in coverage from the streets, capitalizing on a previous investment in mobile journalism skills and gear, and helped to end a corrupt government. The impact on its reputation among both key audience segments was direct. Ratings doubled, and so did advertising revenues.

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Q&A with the authors

How can media managers make sure insights from collected data don’t stop in one department (or even one person) and are regularly shared across the team? What organisational change would it involve?

Great question and one that we get asked quite a bit.

The short answer is obvious: Get agreement on what the organisation as a whole needs to know, and assign data collection to the right people. Then regularly bring people together to present the data and hash out its meaning, at the department and management levels.

The longer answer is that the data we need, and the relation of our people and our work to that data, have been transformed in the past two decades.   

Within the careers of present-day managers, the metric that mattered was the number of subscribers. Publishers needed that data to package the most valuable subsets of their audience to advertisers. That model had allowed most commercial news organisations and newspapers to do very well for a long time.

When news organisations were forced to focus more on the people they serve than on advertisers, their data needs radically shifted. One example: Beyond getting an audience to subscribe (through promotions that could be assessed for efficacy), and counting their subscribers, they needed to know a great deal more about why people subscribed in the first place. (Google, Amazon and Meta are very good at this, which is one reason they’re eating our lunch.) Simultaneously, editorial departments could measure the impact that specific content has on viewers, well beyond its effect on newsstand sales.

Both sides of the business could use each others’ data to anticipate their users’ needs and satisfy them. If that is, they share their data across silos, which often enough, they don’t. The problem isn’t unique to independent news organisations, of course. It’s certainly exacerbated in organisations where “slack” means a collaborative platform, and not the space needed for something besides putting out fires, like thinking creatively about data at every level of operations.  

Some of that work can be automated. The present ideal is a shared dashboard, where different departments collect key indicators. It’s a great tool, but it’s useless if the data isn’t shared, discussed, and acted upon by all the departments. We know of one shop where a major editorial project generated no measurable impact on users because the marketing department didn’t know it was coming. They naturally didn’t plan to capitalise on it, and neither did the editorial department because it wasn’t their job. They were half-right: It’s everyone’s job.

Working together to design and maintain a shared dashboard is a first step to getting past the fear and loathing of data. It’s about setting and communicating organisation-wide priorities and goals, then tracking how well we meet them.

How would you suggest media leaders cope with conflicting reader needs/requests they identify through listening? Especially if they are general news publications with a wide pool of readers.

First, general news organisations have to get past the idea that everything they do matters to everyone. Even the largest news organisations need to decide who they are targeting with a particular initiative or project, whether it’s voters of a certain age or single heads-of-household.

In our view, user personas are the simplest way to help marketing, editorial, product and business teams focus together on reaching, impacting and converting a specific subset of the total audience, by imagining and detailing their characteristics. But that’s the first step. The next step is engaging with those target audience members before, during and after the product, service or story comes out. It’s a time-intensive process, and not everyone is good at it. To get better, they’ll need planning, goals, and tracking skills, to collect and analyse the pertinent data. Don’t expect them to figure it all out themselves, because that’s why many listening initiatives fail.

More from The Fix: Using the MVP principle to launch your reader revenue news product

What impact does technology have on transforming “the listening function” inside a media company? Where do you think it’ll take us in the new decade?

There’s no shortage of options: no-cost solutions such as Google Forms and Sheets, low-cost such as Airtable, media listening and engagement technology such as Hearken and GroundSource, and higher-end packages like Blue Lena.

The problem that many news organisations encounter when they look to employ these solutions is getting all of their systems to work together, to provide a total view of their digital business:  outreach, first contact, listening and engagement, and then conversion and beyond. Even the larger and better-funded news organisations that we’ve worked with cobbled together their technology stacks.

So this isn’t just your problem. In the near future,  it must become simpler and easier for publishers of all sizes and business models to deploy these growth tools.  We need the ability to engage with individuals across platforms, both digital, real world and everything in between (such as augmented reality and VR). We’re talking about a new social contract between a newsroom and the communities it serves, based on listening, respect of privacy, engagement, and providing the content and information services that people want or need.

If you would have to review this chapter section for the 2022 revised & edited edition, would you change something? If yes, what would that be?

It’s not that we want to revise this section. Instead, we want to enrich it through more examples of organisations, inside and outside media, who employ these techniques effectively. That’s what we’re working on now. If you know of someone, we’re listening. 

More from The Fix: How polls, quizzes and Q&As bring interactivity to modern TV, podcasting and newsletters. They never fail. Why?