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More than Eyeballs: How Journalism Can Benefit from Audience Engagement


Photo: Shutterstock

By Emily Goligoski

Curious about what your readers think? What audience members know and want to learn from you? If not, you should be. Learning what supporters of independent news need can help you improve your coverage and grow your revenue.

As Dimitris Xenakis from Greece’s Inside Story recently told journalists: “To rebuild trust, it is necessary to engage readers. They are more willing to pay for stories if they are aware of the whole process of creating. ”

Let’s explore how user research and audience interaction can be useful to your mission. We recognize that some of these strategies won’t work in repressive societies and we’ll discuss a few solutions that are working in environments where independent media are targeted by malicious actors. There’s an overriding need to protect staff, supporters and sources, and we know that many sites need to build support in subtle ways.

At the Membership Puzzle Project, a New York University-based initiative where I lead research into sustainable business models for journalism, we regularly interview people who support independent news organizations with their time, expertise, ideas and money. Our team sits down in person with small groups of news supporters around the world to hear about their needs and what frustrates them about mainstream news. (Short answer: a lot.)

We hear significant complaints about news sites and stations that are piling onto the same stories with soundbites, distracting ads and tidy wrap-ups on stories of serious consequence. This extends to investigative journalism, including television.

From this starting point — and note that asking your readers, listeners and viewers “What drives you crazy?” is a useful place to begin your audience research — we can learn what qualities are valued by supporters of news organizations. Over and over, loyalists to publications including De Correspondent and The Texas Tribune say they seek out organizations that are inclusive, participatory, transparent and human.

Designing for and with Loyal Users Can Have Positive Effects

Your site doesn’t have one monolithic, faceless audience. They have their own needs, problems and price considerations. It will benefit you and your team to take on the important challenge of understanding what drives members of these different audiences (“segments,” as they’re called in marketing and behavior design). User research is a powerful way to get started.

At the Membership Puzzle Project, we study “habituated” audience members who support sites with their time, energy, money and/or ideas. Learning about the needs of the most loyal 1 to 10% of a site’s user base can help us develop insights and designs that better serve 90 to 99% of other prospective users. Think of core users as your most extreme fans and those most likely to want to engage in the process of co-creating your work. They have a habit of using your products (as measured in return visits, regular time and money spent, and number of news products tried and shared). They demonstrate a conviction that you’re creating something useful and distinct. It’s the difference between being a traveler and being a tourist.

Note that designing for loyalists doesn’t mean they enjoy special sway over the direction you choose. You should maintain healthy skepticism about the agenda they may bring.

Later you’ll want to study other people in target audiences, including prospective and former users: These “cancelers” can tell you a great deal about why they stopped spending time with your site.

Getting Started with Research

There is much to gain by listening, testing and being open to what audience members value. Instead of just assuming what audience members want, organizations that practice successful research have developed ways of listening and strong feedback loops to get it right. They’re empathetic and open to fresh thinking, as you can see in the GIJN case studies from Republik, Outlier Media and more. They frequently adopt more agile approaches than used in the past.

Here’s how they do it:

Making listening and feedback collection routine: Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting in California hosts a group of “Reveal Insiders,” a virtual user panel to whom it sends work-in-progress digital presentations for feedback. About 30% of the 500 Insiders regularly respond with comments, and this has helped the organization develop muscles around regular audience listening. Similarly, at the BBC, audience members are asked to rate pilots and projects through the site Taster, which helps improve the user experience of news, documentary and entertainment projects before they launch. Routinely seeking the guidance of relevant audience members can help match user needs with products and features — and avoid costly mistakes such as developing programs and products people don’t want or misrepresenting community members in coverage.

Creating inventive, relevant ways to communicate: An increasing number of publications, including De Correspondent in the Netherlands and The Verge in the United States, engage readers and listeners through individual reporters’ newsletters. A few examples of this can be seen here (De Correspondent), here (The Verge) and here (The Interface). They often include invitations for information from supporters.

Meeting in person: As Jessica Best and Alec Saelens write, at the Korean Center for Investigative Journalism – Newstapa, live events with readers are a chance for journalists to present their experiences with stories being published that day and have discussions about how they might elaborate and follow up on their reporting.

Offering education: Scottish investigative site The Ferret offers educational value to its supporters in the form of regular workshops about reporting, investigating and video editing. Alec Saelens reported that Alastair Brian, a journalist who leads the site’s fact-checking service, said, “If we teach skills we have to the general public, this breaks down barriers between sources of news and consumers, and enhances their ability to scrutinize the news better.”         

Finding new means to connect: As part of its reporting about domestic violence, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism collaborated with a survivor to tell her story in her own words, in communities across the United Kingdom. Cash Carraway, the collaborator, writer and performer, wrote the one-woman stage show “Refuge Woman.” The Bureau organized a tour of the show to inform people in new ways, spark debate and reach new audiences. In each location, the performance of “Refuge Woman” was followed by talks with local workers in the domestic violence sector, together with presentations by journalists about the findings from their long-term investigation. The show went to community centers, a journalism festival and fringe theaters across the country. As reported, investigative journalist and producer of the tour Maeve McClenaghan said, “We had 20 local journalists and volunteers all across the country all help dig into this big collaborative investigation on refuge cuts and, more widely, the impact of domestic violence on various different areas.”

Being creative about what help to solicit: We see that engagement can work at various levels, including assistance on big editorial projects, structured feedback from experts, regular comments on stories and help on routine business tasks. New Naratif, a small team working to create “a more participatory Southeast Asia,” receives help for its member-driven organization in the form of volunteers who regularly offer administrative and accounting help.

Showcasing process: Engagement can start with showing how you work. Our team has identified some of the information you can share with audiences. They include:  

  • Organizational financial health and aspirations
  • People involved, including their personalities, backgrounds, demographics and career paths
  • Priorities and agenda
  • Processes
  • Product and service pricing
  • Response to criticism
  • Organizational philosophy and culture

Examples include the United Kingdom’s Bristol Cable, which engages members of its cooperative at in-person annual general meetings; reporter-written, behind-the-scenes recollections shared in Times Insider; editor-written fundraising articles like this one in Mother Jones; and the “By the Numbers” staff time use rundown from Outside Magazine’s March 2018 print magazine (below).

There are many ways to understand audience members’ patterns and propensities (through web analytics), habits (through self-reported data and surveys — see this open source resource for planning survey questions), needs and values (through interviews and exercises like this membership motivations worksheet), and more. Two useful resources to learn more are David Sherwin’s Smashing Magazine article on a five-step process for beginning research and Erika Hall’s book Just Enough Research.

Involving Readers in Coverage

Giving voice to stakeholders outside newsrooms can seem risky or irrelevant, but there is much to gain through audience listening, collaborative reporting, co-design and other methods we’ve seen to restore lost trust.

Knowing the needs, interests and passions of the people you most want to engage is an important first step. You should be encouraged to go beyond that, though, to determine how you might involve your most loyal fans in the process of creating your work along with you. If you’re in regular communication with current and potential users, identifying ways to participate that are useful for both sides will be easier. You can find out about their appetite for involvement either informally (such as meeting over coffee to hear about their most positive experiences volunteering for a cause or other meaningful contribution) or formally (including surveying users in the segments you most want to reach to understand the kinds of participation options and acknowledgement you might offer). The goal is to match their interests with the help that you and your project need.

Think about your audience members’ needs: to learn and become informed, contribute expertise, be heard, understand how you operate, express support for a cause, meet people with shared values, and more. Then there are your needs: to create high-quality work, find an audience who will benefit from that work, identify additional ideas that are relevant to your mission and be sustainable financially. It’s likely there is overlap in those two sets of needs, and it is your job to identify what and how. You can find answers by asking: What do we not know that the people we want to reach do? Another variation is: What do we not have bandwidth to do that others would get value out of learning to do and/or doing?

Around the world, there are some great examples of the multiple ways people outside an organization take part and contribute what they know to independent news organizations. There are relevant, personalized ways to be of service that aren’t the same old invitation to answer phone calls during public radio pledge drives. We see people contributing as comment moderators, event participants and volunteers, fact checkers, volunteer graphic designers and audio editors, contributors of code, and more.

Mobilizing audience expertise and skills: In Argentina, one of the newspaper La Nación’s investigations into public corruption involved readers coding politicians’ expense reports, demonstrating a two-way knowledge exchange and a real paradigm shift in the ways sites interact with their audiences. At Brazilian fact-checking site Aos Fatos, users share an average of 50 tips daily with requests for checks into potential misinformation. During the country’s recent presidential election, users shared 700 pieces of information they believed to be questionable via WhatsApp for Aos Fatos to investigate.

Asking what audience members know: Maite Vermeulen, De Correspondent’s migration correspondent, wrote about the role of voodoo priests and curses in the fight against human trafficking in Africa. She and her colleagues discussed how to bring more people with relevant expertise into the conversation about the topic. “We thought it wasn’t very likely that our members would have much expertise to contribute regarding voodoo curses,” said Vermuelen. Then they heard from Maria, a member of the De Correspondent platform and a voodoo priestess who had helped trafficking victims. In the comments, Maria shared: “I have helped, and can help, them to step out of this horrid slavery, through religious rituals and treatments. But: Dutch people didn’t, and sometimes still don’t, take it seriously.” This resulted in a lengthy discussion between reader and reporter, who verified Maria’s expertise as a voodoo priestess and asked for examples of how she had helped victims of human trafficking in the Netherlands. Maria elaborated extensively in the comments on the type of rituals she led and responded to other readers’ questions.

Other examples are a ProPublica story on maternal health in the United States and a Pulitzer Prize-winning report on Donald Trump’s philanthropic giving — the role of the audience is acknowledged here by Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold.

Finding out what readers want to learn: Explaining that “we believe our reporting should be driven by what people want to know,” Canadian journalism site The Discourse interviewed 40 indigenous people around Vancouver — youth, elders, parents, artists, harm reduction workers and policymakers — to learn what issues they think are the most important in the urban indigenous community. They heard questions about housing, safety in online spaces, access to social services, reconciliation, racism and other topics. “Now we’re trying to figure out which story ideas to act on first,” Discourse editors wrote, encouraging readers to vote to help them decide what to report on next. (Crucially, they explain that they collect respondents’ names only for the purpose of verifying that responses are from real people, and promise that names and contributions aren’t shared.)

Similarly, gun violence prevention and news site The Trace uses Hearken listening tools to collect and address audience member questions:

Soliciting individuals’ lived experiences: In Germany, Correctiv hosts festivals and convenes people beyond newsrooms with relevant knowledge to offer via its nonprofit research platform Crowdnewsroom. Its most recent investigation into housing market trends for a “Who owns Hamburg?” project featured contributions from 1,000 people.

More examples of newsroom staff and audience member participation can be found here.

Showing gratitude: In South Africa, The Daily Maverick’s members (“Insiders”) offer technical advice to make the site run more efficiently, participate in events and periodically provide expert commentary. When the investigative organization’s newly redesigned website launched, the staff wrote that “this website is a digital love letter to you, a big fat hug rendered in bits and bytes. We’re nothing without you.” They refer to “engaged readers and members [as] our most underutilized (and most willing) co-conspirators” and intend to tap their knowledge more frequently.

Staying Secure When Civil Society Is Under Assault

Much of this guidance isn’t immediately applicable to organizations in countries with repressive governments or where independent media is under sustained assault. We know that in many cases, investigative sites need to guard their funding, staff and the way they work in order to keep operating and stay safe. editor Ewald Scharfenberg is currently exiled from Venezuela, where he describes “several opposing factors that affect the possibility of making an effective engagement”:

“While, on the one hand, the local political conflict has resulted in more people apparently willing to support a medium in a more committed and militant way in order to ensure access to reliable and documented information, on the other hand, there are two large obstacles so that this support becomes effective, at least in the traditional sense of the contribution of money:

1. The fear of being registered as donors of a publication that has conflicts with power. (The three editors of and a reporter are in exile.)

2. The Venezuelan economic collapse has limited the possibilities of people to make contributions and has destroyed the value of the currency.”

We are studying more options for independent media in places where fully open and participatory membership is impossible and those where, as Scharfenberg says, currency is devalued. In the meantime, we know that these and other organizations can take the following measures to maintain a level of engagement that is suitable to their circumstances:

  • Clearly describing their mission
  • Being interested in what community members need, including the ways they want to volunteer their knowledge and skills to support journalism causes they believe in
  • Studying their prospective audiences’ points of frustration with the news options that are currently available to them

Organizations that are doing this well include Rappler describing how and why they conduct fact-checking in the Philippines; El Bus TV in Venezuela, where reporters bring the day’s news report to citizens riding buses in order to reach people who lack other information and/or internet access; the Egyptian site Mada Masr, which hosts events for readers to boost visibility, loyalty and income, as James Breiner wrote for GIJN; and myriad sites that use social media to explain the stories they are pursuing and to be transparent in responding to criticism.

Ilan Greenberg is the publisher of CodaStory, an issues-based platform that provides sustained coverage of global forces such as disinformation campaigns and the authoritarian uses of technology. He said, “What I’ve noticed is that repressive regimes, while discouraging audience engagement, do provide an incentive for publications to adopt innovative ways in which to reach their audiences. In Russia, it’s Telegram channels. And The Bell has really paved the way with its newsletter approach.”

The Bell’s founder Liza Osetinskaya’s letter to readers.


CodaStory CEO Natalia Antelava added: “I think the nature of engagement, though, is completely different when you live in a society where your freedoms are threatened. There may be less people involved but I think engagement is deeper — there is more at stake. You also get a lot more of a blurred line between journalists and activists.” She cited Meydan, a Berlin-based site that publishes in Azerbaijani, English and Russian: “Their audience are the reporters and their sources — that’s the only way of doing it in Azerbaijan.”

As Drew Sullivan, editor and co-founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), of which Meydan is a network member, said:

“We believe a fundamental element of the future of journalism is deeply integrating ourselves with the public as their truth teller. But the infrastructure needed to do this takes a massive investment and all we can do is slowly build one piece at a time. The problem many nonprofit organizations like us face is that you need to invest heavily in either staff or technology to manage these opportunities. Do you hire more engagement people? Invest in bots to reach out? Or hire more investigative reporters?

We are starting by reinventing investigative reporting and how people use our material. It must be more interactive. It must be more contextual and it must be data rich.”

The Bottom Line

Listening to and acting on the range of forms of audience engagement can be both revenue-generating and money-saving (because in-kind contributions of time, ideas and skills can allow sites to spend their resources elsewhere). You may have community members who can give their time and talent, but not their money. Whether individuals currently contribute financially to your work or not, they deserve to enjoy the full benefits of what it means to belong to your site, because their engagement and participation can create opportunities that make good use of staffers’ valuable time — and help to build loyalty and trust.

When done well, audience engagement and membership can be truly impactful. However, as Hearken writes, there are significant “logistical challenges to implementing listening and engagement workflows [that] are hard to overcome.” It can also be quite resource-intensive and can’t be turned on and off like a campaign. Fundraising and marketing are difficult: With few exceptions, news consumers are used to getting free access to digital news. (Access to news is often subsidized — by advertisers, platforms, private funders and reporters themselves — in ways readers often don’t realize. Getting the math right in knowing what to charge is critical, and you might enlist the help of firms that specialize in pricing.) The investment involved in this work is significant in terms of personnel, time and tools. Again, Hearken, in another piece, suggests some of the factors to consider.

Nevertheless, increased engagement with audiences is worth undertaking, even with time-bound experiments first or relatively modest tactical shifts.

Mindy Marquez and Rick Hirsch of The Miami Herald, for example, wrote for Better News about how they’ve changed their daily story meetings to better decide which stories to cover and how, including having audience development growth editors run the meetings with a focus on target audience members. The Herald introduced a formal checklist to evaluate its stories according to audience and mission considerations. You can modify this list to help inform your own production and decision-making.

The sites mentioned in this article represent a range of funding models, including grant-funded projects and for-profit sites with advertising. All are resource-constrained. They’ve shifted money, staff and supporters toward audience engagement and fundraising. They have made a strategic choice that cannot be achieved without consideration of the resources required.  

Please watch the Membership Puzzle Project for more on the shift that’s required to involve more people in the ways that news organizations do business (and we want your ideas!). Outside opportunities for funding this work include the Community Listening and Engagement Fund, Metrics for News Subsidies and the Engaged Journalism Accelerator from the European Journalism Centre.

Engagement projects should be bigger than digital traffic chasing. They work when business incentives and users’ incentives are aligned. Understanding the audience opens doors not only to financial sustainability but also to editorial innovation and inclusion.

Additional Resources

Emily Goligoski is research director for the Membership Puzzle Project. She was the first user experience research lead in The New York Times newsroom and brought design research to Mozilla Foundation. She is also a board member of the education non-profit Youth Radio.

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