Q&A: Walker Evans of Columbus Underground

“We try to shape our editorial calendar around our audience”

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.

Once you have people on the site, what are the kinds of things that you do to keep them there?

The site is kind of divided into two main components: the front page news component, and then a larger sort of message board component, where it’s 100 percent open-ended for people to start conversations, post topics, post events, and ask questions. So I think, not only keeping that open and encouraging people to do that, but starting some conversations ourselves over the years would kind of lead into engaging that audience—asking their opinions, asking what they want—has helped them to feel valued, and to bring them back over and over, and to make them know that there’s something there for them to do on a daily basis.

We also align our editorial content in a way that’s somewhat engaging with our audience. For example if we interview a local politician or someone who’s making decisions about a topic that’s of interest to our audience, we’ll do a lot of crowdsourcing of questions from our audience in advance. And then we take that, conduct the interview, get information, and get that back-and-forth started—many times encouraging the interviewee to then come on and answer further questions and get involved in the community. So a lot of things like that—trying to shape our editorial calendar around what works best for engaging our audience.

What are the most popular parts of your site, either for your regular readers or for fly-by readers who might come to you while looking for something else? Or, do you not mentally divide your audience into categories like that?

There’s definitely an audience who log in multiple times a day to take part in ongoing discussions, there’s an audience who log in in the morning to read the news and then are gone, there are other people who check it once a week before the weekend because they’re looking for something to do. There’s definitely different people who use the site for different reasons. I would say topically, the things that seem to get the most traction are any sort of food-related topics, whether it’s a restaurant review or a discussion about a particular type of cuisine, or anything going on in the realm of urban development within Columbus. Over the past ten years we’ve had a pretty aggressive plan from our mayor’s organization of rebuilding the downtown, revitalizing some of the housing downtown, and that’s a topic that I think really resonates with a lot of the twenty-four- to forty-year-old, young, creative demographic—people looking for those sort of urban opportunities in cities across the country. So I don’t find that that surprising.

So then when you’re looking to turn that audience into ad revenue, what kinds of information do your advertisers want to get from you about that audience? What have you learned about that process?

We use Google Analytics, and that information is always really valuable, because advertisers always want to know where the audience is coming from, how long they’re spending on the site, how many pages they’re clicking on, what areas they are spending the most time in. We also do an annual demographics survey that asks sort of the traditional demographic information about age, education, marital status, children, sort of the whole nine yards. We also ask a few things that are region-specific, as well: we ask where people work, where they like to hang out, where they like to eat, what type of local stores and shops they spend the most money in, things like that.

That’s been really valuable for not only helping us to define who our audience is, but letting advertisers know that if you have a boutique shop in the hip neighborhood, that this is the audience that is looking for you, and they’re going to want to know about your sale. Our business model is aimed at working with the smaller businesses and medium-sized businesses in central Ohio on the advertising end, so it’s been a very good fit.

How do you do that? What can advertisers do to market to your regular readers, your loyal audience, and how do you help them do that?

I guess by delivering a very specific marketing message to what that audience is looking for. For example, maybe if you’re running a print ad in The Columbus Dispatch, and it’s a wider, more general audience, maybe you have marketing and messaging for your business that is meant to get the attention of everyone reading the newspaper. Whereas, working with Columbus Underground, you know that you’re appealing to twenty-four- to forty-year-olds who have some sort of connection to the central city, so they’re interested in very specific things. Let’s say, if your restaurant has a wide variety of food options, but you’ve got a happy hour where you’re featuring PBR on draft, you know that that’s going to be something that’s going to catch the attention of this younger audience, then that would be something that we’ll encourage our advertisers to really play up.

I would imagine that the fact that you got online early helped you really establish yourself as a cultural website. There’s so much more competition now. Are there things you would do differently if you were to start a website now?

Oh, definitely. We actually launched a companion website back in August, called TheMetropreneur.com, which is another hyperlocal central-Ohio-based resource, but that focused on small business and entrepreneurship, and it’s been great to take everything we had learned in the first nine years to apply to launching this new site. But I definitely think that with the growth of the different types of local information that are online now, you really have to drill down, be very specific, have very unique, interesting content. In the early days, we almost acted more as a content aggregator—because we didn’t have a fulltime staff, we didn’t have journalism backgrounds—and I don’t think something like that flies as well today. I think you have to have something unique if you want to build an audience, establish credibility, and really make it something that’s sustainable.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner