Know and grow your audience ft. Anita Li and Rebekah Monson

A LION conversation about audience research and growth, hosted by Outlier Media’s Candice Fortman.

August 2, 2022 by Jenna Spinelle and Ben DeJarnette

News Guest graphic featuring photos of Anita Li from The Green Line and Rebekah Monson from WhereBy.Us

One of the hardest parts of running an independent news business is building an audience from scratch, especially if you’re trying to do it on a shoestring budget. 

In this episode of News Guest, host Candice Fortman of Outlier Media is joined by two guests who have worked deep in the weeds of audience strategy to talk about how researching and understanding the communities you want to serve can help you grow your audience – faster. 

Anita Li is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Green Line in Toronto, and Rebekah Monson is the co-founder of Whereby.Us and Letterhead in Miami, and they’re both board members at LION Publishers.

See below for a few excerpts from their conversation, and learn about growing an audience by signing up for LION’s newsletter and following this month’s series on audience research

On getting started with audience research

Rebekah Monson: The first thing you can do is something reporters are already good at – you can go out and talk to people you don’t know and ask those people to refer you to more people that you don’t know. Just have as many conversations as you can with as many diverse people as you can to understand the universe you’re working in. 

Anita Li: Something I might add is partnering with community organizations on the ground that already have buy-in with your audience or the communities that you serve. That’s an amazing way to organically market your news outlet, and also to build relationships that will pay dividends in the future. 

On using interviews to better understand your audience’s habits and needs

Rebekah: As a startup founder, I think you’re always encouraged to follow the data, follow the data – but qualitative data is also data. So [when we launched The New Tropic in 2015], we went out and talked to just a ton of folks in this millennial Miami audience. 

[That’s how] we really understood that they weren’t reading the Herald… They weren’t really watching local news. They were time-shifting all their media. They were actually very engaged on a national level with certain big topics, and really interested in urbanism and how the city would develop, but there wasn’t really a quick on-ramp right into those things. And that’s where we started with The New Tropic.

On including yourself as a data point in your target audience

Anita: When I was thinking about creating [The Green Line], I really wanted to create it for 12-year-old Anita, who felt really disconnected from the rest of the state and city but who also was really proud of coming from the place I grew up in. I didn’t feel ashamed of it at all. So there was a lot of me rooted in the publication, because I think young me, or [even] me now, is really representative of the audience or the communities that I’m serving. 

On being surprised by audience research

Rebekah: We found [at WhereBy.Us] that, yes, we’re aimed toward millennials, but our audience is actually demographically much more diverse. And we really had to push ourselves to start thinking about [our audience] more in behavioral terms [than in demographic terms]. I think that’s really important. 

On identifying news deserts within highly saturated media markets

Anita: Toronto is a really big city. It’s the biggest city in Canada and it’s actually a very oversaturated media market. But there are tons of news deserts [in Toronto] as well, including my hometown of Scarborough. 

Candice Fortman: I think what you’re saying about Toronto, and it’s true for us in Detroit, is that you’re living in a ‘news donut’ where there is a lot of news infrastructure but the center of that doughnut is not being served. It’s often the inner city, in particular, and when it is being talked about or written about, it’s for the entertainment or the eyes of audiences that don’t actually live in or have to deal with the realities of what happens in those places. 

Read the full transcript from our conversation with Rebekah and Anita.

Want to learn more about how to better understand and grow your audience? Here are two more opportunities we’re offering this month exclusively for LION members:

  • We’re hosting a LION member meetup! Join us on Wednesday, August 31 for our Audience Growth Workshop: Know and Grow Your Audience. You’ll come away with clear next steps for how to apply user research methods to your work, and a template for an audience interview guide that you’ll draft alongside your fellow LION members. 

P.S. We’ll be talking about audience research and development (and a whole lot more!) at the Independent News Sustainability Summit in Austin this October. To join us, buy your early-bird ticket by August 19, and apply for a scholarship if you need help covering the cost of travel and lodging.

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