The Austin Monitor: Innovations and Lessons Learned

With its $10,000 award from the INNovation Fund, the Austin Monitor set out to create a map-based tool enabling Monitor readers to see current and archival news content by neighborhood, testing new audience engagement approaches and ways to draw new value from news archives.

Responses provided by Michael Kanin have been edited and condensed.

What was your organization trying to achieve?

The goal of the project was to build a mapping tool with in-story geocode integration that allows us to demonstrate the direct geographic relevance of our news coverage. We hoped that by doing so we would be able to drive traffic on the website by illustrating the very local impact of our reporting. We also tested whether or not it was possible to turn readers into subscribing members by a tool that encourages consumption of news on the micro-local scale.

What role did the INNovation Fund dollars play in the project?

With INNovation funding, we were able to fully implement the project. The INN grant paid for the project entirely.

What were the key successes of the project?

Audience and Revenue​ Outcomes

We placed a two-year selection of our archives of new articles on a local map with geotags that demonstrate with specificity how the story impacts our community.

We saw the following:

  1. Story Map visitors spend 35 percent more time on the site and visit 18 percent more stories
    than the average user.
  2. Story map visitors are 6x more likely than average users to spend >5 minutes on
    the site.
  3. Story map visitors have an 11% lower bounce rate than average visitors, and they
    are typically viewing >3 stories in a session.
  4. 80 percent of Story Map visitors are return visitors to the site, not new users.

Editorial Outcomes

As noted, it became clear fairly quickly that editorial involvement in selecting the appropriate types of stories for our map was critical. This produced the happy side-effect of securing continuing editorial commitment and processes that ensure that we will continue to add appropriate stories to the map.

What were the critical success factors (ex: market types, internal capacity) that made this work?

Editorial oversight was essential to ensuring that the stories were tagged appropriately as was technical expertise.

What were the lessons learned?

For future projects, or for other organizations looking to undertake a similar project, we would suggest building in a lot of time for editorial oversight. Geotagging the articles retrospectively required much more editorial input than was initially expected. Our use of Google Analytics also created some initial roadblocks.

Once the data started flowing, it revealed some interesting findings: First, that readers who use the map tend to spend much more time with our content and on our site (as noted above). This is somewhat tempered by the fact that we still struggled — this despite marketing efforts and both a prominent notice on our front page sidebar, and placement of the map itself on the frontpage — to train our readers to use the tool. Current thinking has us considering a more prominent placement of the tool, though this is somewhat limited, given certain constraints about that come with its size. This may include a reconfiguration that would allow a smaller version at the top right–one that would pulldown into the full size map.

Do you plan to do this project again?

We are ensuring that StoryMap maintains a prominent place on our website and we will continue to geotag relevant stories.

Would you recommend this revenue- or audience-building approach to other news organizations?

Yes. Though we were unable to generate an increase in subscribers, we did see a significant increase in time spent on the site. We believe that, as we continue to grow via other means, the tool remains a way to keep folks reading–and reading material they otherwise might not discover.

This comes with anecdotal support from a handful of comments that suggest, once folks discover the story map, they are excited about the tool.

What insight would you offer anyone using or thinking of trying a similar approach?

We would recommend that they build in sufficient editorial oversight and technical support. We would also suggest that they invest in a significant marketing budget around the rollout of the project. That should help train readers to use the tool.

One idea not explored here is whether a platform fully-centered on a geographic interface might prove an even better driver of traffic.

What is the market/community that you serve?

Austin, Texas

What was your organization’s revenue mix (i.e. sources and %) prior to the project? Did the revenue mix change as a result of the project?

We are approximately 65 percent funded through subscription to our content. The other portion is a mixed-fundraising effort of individual giving, grants, and events. Our revenue mix did not change as a result of the project.