Skip to Content

Want to expand a newsroom? Ask your audience.

December 15, 2022

A case study published today by INN shows how critical it is to include methodical audience research in any plans for newsroom expansion.

INN talked to dozens of newsrooms and closely examined three INN members that best represented the core audience research that any newsroom should consider before jumping into a major expansion.

Staff from Montana Free Press outside the state’s capitol building. Photo courtesy of Montana Free Press

Each newsroom asked focused questions and then went about answering them when evaluating a proposal: How does what we’re considering change our relationship with our existing audience? What opportunities does it open to build relationships with new audiences and how do those new people differ from those we currently serve well?

For newsrooms like Block Club Chicago, these can be really difficult questions. The neighborhood-focused newsroom questioned whether adding specialized reporters, like an investigations team, would be seen as too far from its core mission and would need audience support to be successful.

“It gets more complicated as you grow because you add five new reporters, it’s not just five new reporters, you’re going to need an extra editor,” said Publisher Shamus Toomey.

Block Club Chicago, Montana Free Press and the South Side Weekly each took a methodical approach to their audience research that included four key steps.

  1. Articulate the opportunity: Each newsroom first examined who it was serving well and how they currently used the reporting. For example, Montana Free Press looked for test markets where there was already some brand awareness when considering expanding into more local coverage.
  2. Try it: All three took on smaller projects that would help them understand the stresses and expansion would put on their ability to serve their existing readers. Block Club leveraged the collaborative values of the INN Network to work on investigations of different scales to understand how the team would adjust to new ways of serving its audience.
  3. Branding and messaging: Each of the newsrooms had extensive conversations with its audience through focus groups, surveys and other methods and asked questions about much more than just the expansion. The South Side Weekly wanted to know how well its audience understood and were motivated by its mission. When it designed a membership program expansion, it focused its messaging on the work that most clearly represented to readers the newsroom’s mission to collaborate with the community.
  4. Experimentation: Ensuring that audiences would act when offered more was critical for each newsroom. Block Club was very direct when it was ready to test the waters on reader revenue and put out a call asking readers to contribute to an investigative fund and then carefully examining how donation patterns were affected before committing to any restricted funds.

The tools the newsrooms used were not complicated — surveys, focus groups, light data analysis — but the key was understanding how each piece fit together and contributed to a larger picture of how an expansion would affect the organization and its relationship with its audience. 

The full case study goes into greater detail on how each component worked and how to see those connections. Over the next year, INN will expand the tools and services available to members who need to conduct their own audience research, including more on how to build audience profiles and how they relate to a larger market, as well as resources to conduct rigorous surveys and help analyzing the results.

This case study was made possible with support from the Google News Initiative, as well as INN’s general support funders.

Back to top