With its $25,000 award from the INNovation Fund, Carolina Public Press set out to institute a series of face-to-face forums in 18 largely rural counties in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
Responses provided by Angie Newsome.
What was your organization trying to achieve?
In 2014, Carolina Public Press embarked on a concentrated engagement program to meet with its readers, donors, and content-sharing partners across 18 counties of Western North Carolina. One of the largest challenges faced by Carolina Public Press since its inception is finding, growing and keeping its audience — and donors to support it.
Our strategy was to use listening sessions to introduce potential readers to our work, while providing an opportunity for our journalists to deepen their understanding of the issues, topics, problems and successes of residents at the local level.
Listening sessions were held nine times in eight Western North Carolina counties with populations ranging from 15,400 to 52,400. Attendance at these sessions ranged from zero to 30 participants.
These pilot meetups and listening sessions allowed us to evaluate effective outreach and event marketing efforts. This information helped to shape our two main efforts in 2015: The News Exchange series and the Newsmakers public forums.
The News Exchanges were free, public listening sessions where Carolina Public Press staff facilitated the conversation about the organization and its mission, as well as the news and information needs in the community. Held in libraries and coffee shops across the region, participants included residents, community leaders, nonprofit workers and executives, elected officials and agency leaders, academics, and other reporters and editors.
The Newsmakers public forums were a nonpartisan conversation series on top Western North Carolina interests and issues. Going beyond headlines and sound bites, the Newsmaker series brought together the state and region’s top journalists with those making and influencing the news — business leaders, lawmakers, agency administrators, public policy influencers and others — for in-depth, nonpartisan conversations with the public. Newsmakers sought to break down barriers often felt between journalists and lawmakers and between community members and leaders — all toward building an engaged, informed community.
Residents were eager to discuss issues in their counties and neighborhoods – from transportation funding to pothole repair, to allegations of nepotism within some of the rural-based electric coops to the prevalence and impact of poverty on the school systems. Staff followed up one-on-one with potential investigative story ideas, which resulted in several investigative projects. We held 16 News Exchange meetups in 16 counties, with total participation of about 133 community members. We also held two Newsmakers events, attracting 35 community members with no affiliation to CPP.
What role did the INNovation Fund dollars play in the project?
The INNovation Fund provided us the rare opportunity to focus on and expand our first attempts at this type of engagement journalism and donor development, which has dramatically impacted our news organization’s mission and strategic vision — from understanding our readers’ interests, developing news and donor relationships to developing a revenue stream through event sponsorships. We remain grateful for the INNovation Fund and the organizational leaps we were able take because of it.
What were the key successes of the project?
We achieved the following results in 2015:
- Exceeded our 2015 goal of $25,000 in individual donations by $7,000. We identified 700 new subscribers and event participants.
- Saw a 21 percent increase in the number of donors and a 49 percent increase in individual donations — from $21,000 in 2014 to nearly $32,000 in 2015.
- Determined that 10 percent of event attendees go on to become donors and established that 10 percent of our subscribers become donors. In comparison, only 0.16 percent of unique visitors go on to become donors.
- Established a source of news tips that resulted in several regional investigative projects.
- We developed and implemented a cultivation calendar that focuses on communication with prospective donors and readers.
What were the critical success factors (ex: market types, internal capacity) that made this work?
This outreach project could be replicated by other nonprofit news organizations. While the project tasks — organizing meetings, marketing events and facilitating conversations — were relatively “easy,” the biggest challenge was dedicating enough staff time and adequate funds for marketing to make it successful. It is important to be clear about your ultimate goals and the role this program plays in achieving them. Is the goal to:
- Convert your current audience into donors?
- Build relationships with sources?
- Attract new readers?
- All of the above?
And is it worth making a significant short-term financial investment in the program in order to net long-term increases in readers and financial results? Those are essential questions that organizations should consider before making a commitment to this type of audience engagement project in a rural regional area. Organizations must have staff members trained in group facilitation, in event planning and in marketing in order to successfully conduct such an outreach program.
What were the lessons learned?
Throughout the course of the audience and donor engagement and outreach project, we had four major lessons learned. They relate to time and resource commitments; identifying community news needs; quality versus quantity of participation; and marketing needs.
Time and Resource Commitment
As noted before, the region we covered is geographically large, mainly rural and mountainous. Making a staff and time commitment to visit each county at least one time during the course of the year was a serious one. For example, to get to one town to hold an hour-long meeting took fours of travel time. Additionally, time to plan and market the event can divert attention away from news and content creation.
The Challenge of Effective Marketing
We discovered that reaching potential and current audiences is a tremendous challenge, especially in areas without easily identifiable social and information-sharing networks. Initially, we relied on publicizing the events through press releases to local media; Facebook, Twitter and Meetup event postings; publishing announcements on our website and paying for Facebook event advertising. Community newspapers often did not share our announcements and we gained no participants from Twitter and only a handful from Facebook. It became clear that the vast majority of participants were residents unfamiliar with Carolina Public Press and current content-sharing partners. Residents with investigative reporting ideas were reticent to come to public meetings, opting instead to contact us in other ways to share their stories. We changed marketing strategies, choosing, instead, to send out individualized email invitations to community leaders, elected officials, political party leaders, public agency leaders, and leaders from universities and community colleges. We continued to utilize our website and other media organizations for outreach. Social media was ineffective for boosting participation. Word-of-mouth and individual invitations were the most effective – though time-consuming – ways of reaching our potential audiences.
Local Meetings, Regional Needs
Carolina Public Press’s mission is to provide nonpartisan, in-depth and investigative reporting to Western North Carolina. As our organization planned this intensive outreach program, we initially hoped that we would make the necessary contacts needed to conduct hard-hitting investigative reporting projects at the local level. Instead, participants focused on the need for some of the most “basic” kinds of news and information – things such as how to get a pothole fixed. There are counties in our region where residents believe they live in news deserts. They reported that they did not know how to find general information about who to contact at local, regional and statewide governmental agencies when they had an issue of concern. Through this feedback we learned that there was a regional need for more hard-hitting news. Community newspaper journalists and editors who chose to participate in the listening sessions, for the most part, also expressed a need for additional resources and a desire to partner with Carolina Public Press for in-depth and investigative reporting.
Relationship Building: Quality vs. Quantity of Participants
In undertaking this project, our metrics for success originally included qualitative and quantitative goals. While we wanted to increase awareness of Carolina Public Press, we also wanted to deepen our understanding of the concerns at the local, countywide and regional level. We found that about 10 participants was a good goal. Fewer than that, and the conversation can be strained. Larger than that, and some participants are unable to fully participate. it is our core belief that quality, impactful journalism will result in higher readership, not the other way around. Toward that end, we turned our focus on having quality conversations with participants instead of focusing solely on participation numbers.
One example of this is that we had two participants in a listening session in one of the smaller counties we cover. One person shared that the county commissioners in her county were pursuing a 75-year transfer of the county’s public drinking water system to South Carolina. We went on to lead the regional reporting on the issue, and the plan was eventually pulled.
Would you recommend this revenue- or audience-building approach to other news organizations?
Absolutely, with the understanding that it is time and resource intensive. But, for us, the rewards outweighed any initial worries.
What insight would you offer anyone using or thinking of trying a similar approach?
In general, it would be our recommendation that organizations focus on the quality of their interactions versus number of attendees, especially for organizations serving a large, mainly rural geographic region. Quality interactions with community members and quality journalism, we believe, will eventually lead to sustained readership, donors and community buy-in and support of the organization, its mission, and its journalism.
What was your general funding profile at that time?
In 2015, our revenue mixture was 73 percent foundation support, 23 percent individual giving, and 4 percent earned revenue.
What is the market/community that you serve?
At the time, we served the 18 westernmost counties of North Carolina. The region is a rural, mountainous and vast- united by its geographic and, in some instances, political and cultural isolation from the centers of policy making in North Carolina. Based on the interests and news needs expressed through this engagement project, we have since added another county, which follows the same geographic identity.