News organizations often get an “audience bump” during major breaking news, but the COVID-19 pandemic offered something unique: a prolonged news event that had readers eager to read every word, every story, and actually become engaged with the content and the publisher. Here was a once-in-a-lifetime story that is important to every human on the planet. Journalists were unusually in sync with the information needs of their audiences — because the information was personally crucial to the journalists as well.

And that doesn’t happen often enough, says Northwestern University communications professor Pablo Boczkowski. “To flourish in the third decade of the 21st century, journalism has to stop conceiving of audiences in its own image,” he says. New projects and initiatives need to have the image of the reader — not the journalist whose demographic is often quite different — front and center.

That was a north star for people at Los Angeles public radio station KPCC who were tasked with remaking the “ancient” LAist website. The redesign began last August during some of California’s darkest pandemic days, and had to help retain the avalanche of new readers seeking COVID-19 information.

KPCC acquired the nearly extinct LAist in 2018 — one of several public radio partnerships/acquisitions designed to reach broader audiences. Their pandemic coverage strategy had its own mission statement and a set of pandemic “guides with incredibly useful information” including vaccine effectiveness, eligibility, and where to get a second shot. KPCC is a major user of Hearken, says Executive Editor Megan Garvey, and the engagement platform’s reader feedback loop helps direct content for the guides.

Because many new “Covid readers” were coming directly to LAist’s homepage, KPCC knew those users had to see something immediately useful and accessible — or they’d leave. That led to a crucial design decision: making the homepage look like a “live newsletter,” says Garvey. Banking on the current popularity of newsletters, the staff creates short news items for “The Briefs” section with a clean, uncluttered look.

The design and content also are meant to ensure that new readers see themselves on the site. Research on the old site design revealed reader complaints that “this does not look like my LA. This is not how I relate to my city,” says Andy Cheatwood, KPCC’s director of digital product. “They could sense a falsity of the presentation…it was interfering with their ability to pick up on the quality of the content.”

To continue expanding and retaining their new readers, Cheatwood and Garvey are working to increase diversity on the LAist homepage and throughout the site — a critical effort in a region that’s one of the country’s most diverse. One way to do that is through hiring a staff that mirrors the community. “The more we diversify our newsroom, the easier it is to speak to that community,” says Cheatwood. “If you’re not, you’re failing.”

Although their reader retention effort has shown success, Garvey is cautious. “There’s a horizon, but we’re not at it,” she says. “We’ve got ambitious growth goals… and I have a lot of faith.”

Other promising efforts, suggestions and ideas:

When the pandemic hit in 2020, the Cleveland Jewish News cut back on its print publication days because of advertising losses — not an uncommon move among local print media over the past year. But by launching a new set of newsletters, the publication responded to concerns from community members who “could not be without our print publications at a time of isolation,” publisher Kevin Adelstein says.

“While increased revenue was certainly a consideration in launching the new newsletters, for us, it was more a community engagement content play at a much needed time,” Adelstein told API. Now, there’s a waiting list for newsletter ad spots, he says, and the publication has added a “significant” number of subscribers. The organization also continued with plans for a quarterly magazine, publishing the first issue early this year in the midst of the pandemic and receiving “overwhelming positive feedback from that targeted audience.”

The pandemic waylaid Newsday’s plan to open a new video studio for live “town hall”-type events last year. But a quick decision instead to produce virtual events has resulted in surprisingly high ratings from their audiences. Among other metrics, Newsday uses the Net Promoter Score to gauge how likely the audience would be to recommend them to others. The score from event participants was nearly 70 — “world class,” says Patrick Tornabene, Newsday’s chief officer of consumer revenue and strategy. In 2020, Newsday Live held 120 virtual events, ranging from pandemic-related topics to education to the arts; they’ve held more than 40 events so far this year. Average registration is about 5,000 people for each event, which are recorded for on-demand viewing.

What’s made the events successful is the careful selection of topics and speakers, says Melissa Carfero, Newsday’s manager of event strategy and development. The interviewees have included COVID-19 expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, television personalities and musicians. “But what sets us apart from other interviews is that local people have an opportunity to question the experts themselves,” she said, framing their questions and getting answers on a more personal, local level. Audience questions are shared with reporters and editors, and have led to the creation of resource guides and follow-up stories.

Journalism struggles with understanding reader needs in general, and has a history of not meeting the needs of people of color. Today, reaching conservative audiences also is a monumental challenge. Just 10% of Republicans say they have a “great deal or fair amount of trust” in the media, according to a recent Gallup survey, compared to 73% of Democrats. You could write off a significant percentage of potential subscribers, or, says Joy Mayer of Trusting News, try to learn about and navigate that world. Trusting News recently launched a study in which local journalists will “interview right-leaning individuals in their own communities about their perceptions of journalism.” A team that includes the Center for Media Engagement will analyze those interviews in an attempt to help local newsrooms “do journalism that better connects with your community,” Mayer says.

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