This week, CJR released a new report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, entitled “The Story So Far: What we know about the business of journalism.” To supplement Chapter Two of that report, which focuses on traffic patterns and audience engagement, assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with a founding editor of the ten-year-old, ad-supported news site Columbus Underground, Walker Evans, about what he’s learned so far. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
You guys have been around for a while now. How gradually were you able to build a regular audience? Was your site something that caught on right away?
No, it was pretty slow. There was a small, engaged group early on who were sort of the regular people—either contributing information, or adding to discussions, posting events, or any of the other things that people do on our site. The overall readership took a lot longer to grow, I think. Each of those pieces has grown considerably over the years, but yeah, it was a slow process. When we started Columbus Underground it was originally as a hobby, ten years ago. We didn’t register as a business until about four years into it, when we figured we could start to put a business plan behind it.
So you were starting this site obviously before Twitter and Facebook and those kinds of tools. What were the kinds of things did you do online to attract readers to your site?
Funnily enough, we actually did some print flyers around town, since what we do is very hyperlocal and geography-specific, we were able to distribute some handouts and trinkets and things like that in places where our demographic hung out, shopped and ate. It was so long ago, back in 2002, the number of people looking for local information online wasn’t quite as big an audience as it is today. We kind of felt like we were introducing something that didn’t exist in a lot of capacities here locally. Other than that, just kind of contributing to our database and spreading that through search engine optimization—although I don’t know if it was called “SEO” ten years ago. So a lot of our traffic slowly started to come in through search engine results, where someone would actually search for a local restaurant—and maybe if the restaurant didn’t even have their own website, they would end up finding a review on our site or something like that, and start to trickle in. So I guess it was sort of half trying to engage that audience through traditional in-person marketing means, as well as some of the standard SEO stuff.
When you were starting up, were the other local newspapers doing things like that online too? Did they have websites with restaurant databases and things like that, or was that still too early?
In the very, very beginning it may have still been too early for them. I’m pretty sure that The Columbus Dispatch did have their content online pretty early on, but as far as cataloguing information, or creating archives of information that were easily accessible, there really weren’t a lot of other organizations doing that. We have a couple alt-weeklies here, but there was very little information online at all from them in those early days.
I noticed on your site that you have regular happy-hour meetups with your readers. Are there other types of things you do now to engage with your audience in person?
We try and work with some existing events and festivals and help sponsor them, either through marketing or through having a presence at the event, through booths or vending. We’ve partnered with some local development firms and done condo tours and house tours, we’ve worked with lots of local arts organizations to do openings for galleries, art shows, and performances. We really just try to keep a measurement on the types of events that our audience is interested in, and how we can either make it a more appealing event for them to attend, or give them some sort of unique experience at that event.