Make 'engagement' your mantra as an online news publisher

The Web publishing business is a bit more complex than “more traffic = more revenue.” While years have watching ABC circulation figures have trained many journalists to want the largest circulation possible, business-savvy journalists long have known that not all audiences generate the same revenue. But how do you reach the audience that will allow your publication to stay in business?

Before I go any further today, let me again make the point again that the audience is not your customer. Your customer is whoever writes you a check. In most cases, that means our customers, as publishers, are the advertisers who pay for placement in our news publications. A customer also can be the non-profit foundation or angel investor that funds a news website. It even could be, as the New York Times hopes, the audience itself, if there’s a paid content scheme in place.

But keeping that audience/customer distinction in mind, even in the case of paywalls, is essential for journalist-entrepreneurs to have any hope of success in the news publishing business. Let’s take a look at a diagram I whipped up:

Venn diagram

The beige circle is all the available audience out there that might be interested in your website.

The red circle is all the available audience out there that your customers (advertisers, foundations sponsoring your grants, etc.) want to reach.

The yellow circle is your current audience.

The orange overlap is the audience that you are reaching and that your customer wants to reach, too. Congratulations, that’s where you are making your money.

The rest of the yellow area? You might be doing public good by reaching that audience there, but it’s costing you money to publish to them and your customers don’t care. And if you are charging your customers to reach those audience members, reaching them is costing your customers money, too.

You goal, as a news publisher, ought not simply be to expand the size of your yellow circle. It should be to expand the size of that orange overlap area – meaning that you are attracting a larger number of the audience members whom your customers wish to reach.

First approach – shrink the circle

Some publishers have recognized that you can increase the orange area while making the yellow circle smaller. This, ultimately, is part of the thinking behind many paywall/registration schemes: Put up a barrier that drives away the “yellow audience,” so that your audience circle looks much more orange.

I don’t like that approach because it’s a negative one. In turning away audience, you might turn away some of the audience your customers want to reach, as well. (BTW, on the subject of paywalls, if you think paywalls are simply about raising money to support additional journalism, let’s not forget that the first 51,000 new annual paywall subscriptions to the New York Times will pay for only the salaries of the Times’ top two business executives last year. Paywall revenue supports the print news industry’s bloated business sides and profit margins as well as journalism.)

Crafting a negative strategy that eliminate the yellow “free riders” while retaining the lucrative “orange” audience is a tough task. As the perfect is said to be the enemy of the good, at some point, efforts to minimize or eliminate free riders cuts into your share of the lucrative audience, as well.

If you really want to reduce advertiser cost in reaching an audience that doesn’t deliver for them, consider restricting the placement and distribution of ads on your site, instead. This can help make your remaining ad inventory more valuable, and even result in higher revenue.

Be proactive about culling garbage pages from your site, as well: duplicates of existing coverage, empty comment pages and forums, spammy user-generated content and early versions of now-updated stories (redirect to the current version, unless there’s some strong archival value in the drafts). Don’t waste your audience’s time and clicks. Deliver value on every page for them, and you’re more likely to deliver value to your customers, as well.

Second approach – move the circle

If certain topics on your website are attracting the audience your customers want to reach, and other topics are not, it’s natural that publishers will choose to deepen coverage in those first topics, and reduce or eliminate coverage in the latter ones. This isn’t unique to the Web. I remember plenty of print sections dying for lack of advertiser support in the past.

Essentially, this approach is an attempt to move the yellow circle, to overlap the red one. It’s using a change in content to attempt to do what the pay- or registration wall was to do in the first approach – to eliminate less coveted audience members. But the implied addition of new content that appeals to the coveted audience would keep the overall size of the audience roughly the same. What you lose in one area, you gain in another.

Again, why eliminate audience? I agree that publishers need to consider customer value in deciding how to spend money on staff, licensing and assignments. But an audience member who lives in the yellow area of the circle today might move to the orange area tomorrow. Change the mix of your offerings too radically, and you might break many of your audience members’ reading habits, depriving you – and your customers – of those eyeballs on days when they are looking to support your customers’ causes.

Third approach – grow the circle

That’s why I recommend that publishers think about a third approach: growing the circle – not your yellow circle, but your customers’ red one.

Ultimately, publishing’s customers – whether they be advertisers or non-profits – are looking to reach an audience of individuals engaged in the customer’s community of interest. And the customers’ purpose in funding the publishing is to get those audience members more directly engaged in the customer’s cause.

For a shopkeeper advertising on a local news site, that cause is likely getting locals into the store. For a non-profit, the cause might be to raise public awareness of, or action on, a specific issue. In either case, though, the desire is engagement.

Make that word your mantra as a publisher: engagement. That’s why I dislike the first two approaches, because they include active disengagement by a publisher toward its community.

Instead, a publisher’s mission always should be to more deeply engage the community he or she serves. If you can grow the number of people in the community who are actively engaged with it – emotionally, politically, socially and, yes, even commercially – you’ve grown the red circle of potential audience members that your potential customers want to reach.

Focus on delivering, then, what your audience members need so that they can be, will be and will want to be more engaged with their community.

I can’t draw you map for doing that in your specific community. But I can, and do, urge you to adopt a positive attitude toward community engagement journalism. It’s our industry’s only hope to survive economically in the Internet’s business environment.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at