Sourcing innovation from a ‘rural journalism lab’

Editor’s note: This article is the first of two in a series on innovation in rural journalism. The second, “Truths from the liars tables” can be found here.
 
WHEN BROTHERS Dustin and Lee Bratcher launched the hyperlocal, digital news outlet The Ohio County Monitor in 2012, their goal was to make local accountability reporting more cost-effective, accessible, and timely. In rural Ohio County, Kentucky, home to 24,000 residents spanning 600 square miles, the local economy was once built on manufacturing, coal mining, and agriculture—with many family farms focused on tobacco. More than 20 percent of the county’s population lives in poverty, and the mean per capita income is around $20,000, so people struggle to add additional monthly bills to the mix.

Without the need for expensive infrastructure to produce a print publication, The Monitor focused on the business proposition that low overhead and operational costs ($10,000 per year, including rent, computers, web resources, and contingency funds for technological challenges or upgrades) means even a moderate level of advertising revenue would keep them afloat.

But with a readership spread across hundreds of rural square miles, selling advertising was tough. Chain stores in the county center dominate local sales, and The Monitor couldn’t compete with the targeting options and efficiencies of sites like Facebook and Google when it came to local businesses with finite digital advertising budgets.

That’s why, last summer, the Bratchers made the switch to a subscription model. Getting a steady stream of monthly viewers hasn’t been a problem. Since 2012, The Monitor has seen its traffic build quickly and maintain steadily. By the time it officially moved to a subscription-based business, it already had close to 10,000 Facebook likes and was getting, on average, between 30,000 and 40,000 unique monthly visitors. But would people be willing to pay for their local news?

Building on our previous research through the Tow Center and a workshop we held in August 2017 on strengthening storytelling networks and civic engagement in this region of Kentucky, over the past few months we embarked on a series of experiments with the Bratchers in what we’ve coined a “rural journalism innovation lab.” Our work explored a range of approaches—around promotion, news products, and community engagement—aimed at driving residents into a deeper relationship with The Ohio County Monitor and supporting the outlet’s move to a $5-monthly subscription model, supported by very limited advertising.

What we found is that while Facebook drives the most traffic to the site, its algorithm over-prioritizes local crime stories from The Monitor, pushing stories into local residents’ feed that don’t drive the kind of readership likely to translate to subscriptions. A number of Facebook ad spends to promote Monitor-sponsored events and gift subscriptions also weren’t useful in getting people to show up or subscribe. Thus far, livestreaming community events has proved unreliable, due to unpredictable internet connectivity at venues in the rural county, and a weekly podcast was hard to promote and challenging for readers to discover and follow.

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We saw the most promise from two pilot projects focused on community traditions—a community contributor program and a “liars table tour,” which involved traveling to convenience stores in various rural towns around the county where people already tended to gather. A subsequent piece in this series covers each of these experiments in more depth. However, in the 12-day period after we ran five community contributor pieces, The Monitor received 13 new subscribers—a third of the 39 subscribers it added during our period of experimentation.
 

The Struggle of Accountability Journalism in Rural Communities

The Monitor is a centralized, daily resource for information that pertains to Ohio Countians. “We’re really kind of an aggregator,” says Lee Bratcher. “We just go out and find all the stories that we can that affect Ohio County and put them in one site.”

A significant portion of that work requires wading through press releases and the like. However, while curating news and information from around the state forms the core of the Bratchers’ daily activity and publishing, some of the most time-intensive stories the brothers produce involve in-depth coverage of county and city meetings. As a reporting team, Lee often writes stories while Dustin edits video or audio from the proceedings.

This is the sort of accountability journalism that is tough to accomplish when budgets for local journalism are sparse, but it’s also the kind of work that regional publications don’t do well or often—and that aggregation alone will not cover.

This type of coverage is not what drives traffic and Facebook shares, however. Site traffic is heavily dominated by obituaries (which are in front of the paywall) and crime stories. Over the past year, Dustin Bratcher estimates that while crime stories comprised somewhere between 7 and 17 percent of the stories posted each month, they generate a much higher proportion of monthly traffic. As crime stories get posted, the clicks, reactions, shares, and comments they inspire as readers react viscerally to them quickly propel their visibility in Facebook’s algorithm.

For many readers, those crime stories are what they see in their Facebook feeds from the brand. In a digital advertising-based business, where traffic is key to generating revenue, these articles would be a priority. But the Bratchers have seen no evidence that the traffic generated by crime stories has led people to subscribe. Rather, the way Facebook prioritizes these stories likely distracts from coverage that drives subscriptions. In fact, they may even turn off local residents potentially interested in supporting The Monitor—the Brachers have heard some readers complain that crime stories are all they see from the brand.

This is one reason why The Ohio County Monitor is interested in engaging subscribers through a daily automated newsletter with all of its headlines from the past 24 hours, where people are presented with the full range of stories the publication produces, and not just what is surfaced on Facebook. It’s also why we saw particular promise from a community contributor pilot we’ll cover in a subsequent piece that generated a few stories whose traffic rivaled that of crime coverage.
 

Experiments to Up Engagement and Subscriptions

The business model of a publication like The Ohio County Monitor is built on gaining readers who enter into a deeper relationship with the news brand and who come to the publication on purpose, and with purpose. Again, our rural journalism innovation lab had to be particularly mindful of developing relationships with a community whose budgets are especially tight. From October 2017 through January 2018, we worked with the Bratchers to explore which types of initiatives showed promise in convincing people to “make the jump” to becoming subscribers. Here’s what we learned:

Facebook advertising didn’t help deepen engagement

Since its launch, a significant portion of The Monitor’s traffic has been driven by clicks from Facebook. The publication has not, however, developed a significant, time-intensive strategy for the platform. Almost all of its activity has instead included scheduling articles to post via the outlet’s Facebook page, without commentary, and then re-sharing them individually.

Now that The Monitor has moved to a subscription model, we were curious whether spending money with Facebook might deepen engagement. For two events we ran at the Ohio County Public Library, we spent $35 each on promotional ads, targeted to Facebook users in the 24,000-person county. The result, according to Facebook, was somewhere between 9,000 and 11,000 impressions for each campaign, reaching about 4,000 people in each instance. In the case of one event, 20 people clicked on the ad; in the other, 12 clicked. And, based on feedback at the two events, we can confirm that no one actually showed up because of that ad spend.

Similarly, for a morning-long, five-stop tour around Ohio County that we hosted, we spent $42 on Facebook ads, driving a little under 15,000 impressions, reaching 5,414 people, and engaging 12. Once again, we are reasonably certain that no one who came to those events found out about them by seeing the Facebook ads. Those who came heard about them through other word-of-mouth channels.

In our other primary track of experimentation, we wanted to see if Facebook advertising might drive people to subscriptions. Rather than promoting a subscription for readers themselves, in the couple of weeks leading up to the holidays we promoted the idea of purchasing a news subscription for someone as a holiday gift. In all, we spent $75, generating more than 17,000 impressions among an audience of more than 3,000 people, driving 143 clicks, and leading to zero gift subscriptions purchased.

Of course, it’s plausible that each Facebook ad campaign generated new brand awareness among the few thousand people it reached. But for a publication whose model is now reliant on subscriber revenue and for which $200 in Facebook advertising is equivalent to one month’s rent, this is a significant expenditure for no tangible gain.

Throughout our work, we also looked at how, where, and when Facebook might increase its support and visibility for subscriptions in other ways. In late February, the platform announced its new Local News Subscriptions Accelerator. It is too soon to know what the Facebook pilot will mean for outlets like The Monitor. At this point, it’s only open to metropolitan newsrooms, leaving questions about whether and if programs for bolstering subscription models will ever be structured to benefit rural markets and neighborhood publications with few internal resources and very little extra money to invest.

Regardless, our experiments around platform promotion reinforced for the Bratchers that relying on digital advertising through Facebook as an immediate vehicle for generating subscription-level commitment is not worth further investment.

Podcasting and livestreaming

In November 2017, The Ohio County Monitor launched a weekly podcast, which summarized and discussed some of the most relevant local news at the end of each week. The podcasts, released each Friday on The Monitor’s website, have been successful in the sense that the Bratchers have confirmed their ability to produce them reliably.

But their biggest challenge to date has involved spreading awareness at a local level, especially since they have only distributed the podcast on their site so far, which does not enable the ability to subscribe. Each episode has received modest engagement. Among the 42 Monitor readers who filled out our survey at the conclusion of this work, four people had listened. While 13 respondents indicated they had no interest in listening to a podcast, another 13 said they hadn’t listened but were interested in doing so in the future. An additional 12 respondents said they had no idea about the podcasts at all.

The Ohio County Monitor also increased its use of livestreaming during our experimentation period, focusing on bringing a variety of community events to the public in real time. Livestreamed events included a meeting organized by the local community organization Together We Care, which received some 1,400 views; a meeting of the Ohio County Chamber of Commerce, which attracted 1,200 views; and the Ohio County High School Christmas Concert.

Fewer than a quarter of readers who responded to our survey had watched any of these livestreams. Among those who hadn’t, a few indicated that they weren’t aware of the experiments, and about half said they would be interested in watching in the future.
These handful of experiments show how rural areas struggle pragmatically with new features like livestreaming. With challenges to Wi-Fi availability and mobile signals, livestreams can be practically hard to manage. For several events, The Monitor had to deal with multiple disruptions in streaming, likely impacting the audience’s ability to follow along. Signal challenges also heavily impact which events the Bratchers are able to livestream. For instance, the City of Hartford’s county government buildings are located in an area with volatile mobile signals, making livestreaming county government meetings unfeasible.

The fate of the podcasting and livestreaming experiments highlight one of the biggest tensions for a hyperlocal built around a subscription model—how do you produce enough engaging material to makes subscribing worthwhile?

On the other hand, these experiments proved The Monitor’s capabilities in areas the publication may build on in the future. For one, the Bratchers have become increasingly interested in the viability of livestreaming local sporting events, particularly if local talent might make themselves available to call the game on video and enough local sponsors support the idea to make the production worth the significant time investment. Based on experiments they’ve seen elsewhere, the Bratchers are also toying with crowdfunding the livestreaming of games to supplement local business sponsorship.

Live events and strategic community partnerships

The Bratchers already have a presence at various community events, which provides visibility for The Monitor. But, during the time we worked together, we were interested in expanding the hyperlocal’s work with other community organizations and civic institutions in its rural community.

For a publication that has moved to a subscription model, an investment in partnerships and events that deepen people’s engagement and/or provide new models for revenue not reliant on programmatic digital advertising has shown great promise. For instance, we managed discussions with the Ohio County Public Library to explore how the two could work together. Before our pilot project, there had been no significant collaboration between the two, but initial conversations led to two commitments: first, for The Monitor to more regularly share the library’s existing programming and, second, for the library to play host to experiments in programming for The Monitor.

Our first live partner event at the library was for a gathering called “How Does a News Business Work?” The event was promoted via The Monitor’s site and Facebook page and as part of the Ohio County Public Library’s events calendar, as well as the (ineffective) Facebook advertising buy previously mentioned. On the Facebook event page for the gathering, 20 people marked that they were going or interested. And one person showed up—Beaver Dam Mayor Paul Sandefur.

“I really expected more people because . . . I know [the Bratchers] really had a lot of people upset because they decided to have the nerve to charge for their efforts, and I thought, ‘Okay, maybe people will come to actually learn what’s involved and what it is about,” Sandefur says. “But they didn’t. I was a little disappointed.”

Mayor Paul Sandefur with Lee Bratcher at The Monitor’s first library event.

On the other hand, the second Monitor event—a community gathering around a pilot program for community contributions to the site—was significantly more successful, even as it was promoted in the same ways. Fifteen community members attended—a standing-room-only crowd for the size of the meeting room at the local library reserved for the event. Meanwhile, 46 indicated an interest in attending via the Facebook event page.

The immediate takeaway for the Bratchers was that local residents’ interest in discussing the plight of the news business was not deep enough to truly engage them. However, a discussion about their community—and an overt invitation to potentially become involved—showed much greater potential to drive the sort of engagement necessary for a news organization building a model around direct revenue from the community it serves.

Perhaps even more significant in the long term, these experiments demonstrated potential promise for ongoing strategic partnerships with the local public library. “Our role in the community is kind of like—we hope, anyway—the heart of the community,” says Melanie Warga, a librarian at the Ohio County Public Library. “We offer a little bit of something for everyone. That stereotypical, stuffy old building full of moldy old books—that’s just not us anymore. You know, we’re not the little old ladies with buns telling everyone to shush.”

For Warga, that positioning as the heart of the community means that people expect the public library to be closely connected to local, civic information and news. “Just collaboration between news and the library would be great,” she says, adding that people regularly call the library hoping to find out more about something happening elsewhere in the community. “It would be great for us to be able to answer some of those questions and to be, you know, a part of that.”
 

The Results

Regularly, via comments in response to their stories, the Bratchers hear from members of the public who are angry that stories now sit behind a paywall. “We had one lady message us on Facebook, saying that . . . we shouldn’t have to pay to know about what’s happening in our community,” Dustin says. In their back and forth, when Dustin asked her if journalists should work for free, “she literally said, ‘No, the employers are supposed to pay them.’”

Explaining the business of hyperlocal news to a community is a real challenge. From our limited experience running an event at the public library, the question of how a journalism business works is not pressing enough to bring people out for a conversation. Many residents, however, don’t really understand the idea or the mechanics behind a digital subscription.

As the clerk at a local store says, “I don’t figure a lot of people know how to do it. You’re talking to a 62-year-old here, and I don’t know how to subscribe.” Meanwhile, another local resident says, “You start reading something, and then it tells you—about the time you get interested in it—it says you need to log in. So, I just go to something else.” He adds, “(People) get to a point that they say, ‘To heck with it,’ because you’ve got to log in to it . . . give a password and all that. We’ve got enough of that going on. It’s like, ‘I’ll give you a taste of it, but I ain’t going to let you have the whole thing.’”

This kind of thinking has the community’s mayor worried. “I could see a day in time pretty soon (in which) local newspapers aren’t going to be around,” Mayor Sandefur says. “If that’s the case, you will have no local voice. I would hate to think that we had to depend on a newspaper from a larger city 30 miles away to tell our people what is going on in our community.”

The question remains, though, whether the slow process of community engagement, trust building, and media literacy that will be required to build the base for a subscription model will hit the point where it becomes sustainable for Dustin and Lee to maintain The Ohio County Monitor as their primary job.

“If the community doesn’t want it, then obviously you won’t have it, but you have to believe, and you have to move forward thinking, ‘Okay, the people want their news,’” Dustin says. “They want to know what’s going on, so you have to assume and you have to hope that, eventually, more people will get onboard, and they’ll just come along with you.”

Not surprisingly, none of the experiments provided a quick, widespread fix to building the case for direct community support. At the point we started working with The Ohio County Monitor, it had a base of around 100 subscribers who had signed on in the first five months after the publication moved to a subscription model. It added nine new subscribers in November and 12 in December 2017. In the first 25 days of January 2018, five new people subscribed.

We did, however, see significant progress in signups in the 12-day period after we ran five community contributors pieces. The Monitor received 13 new subscribers—a third of the 39 subscribers they added during the time period we ran these experiments. Our next piece in this series looks at the pilot community contributor program, which included the library event mentioned before, and a “liar’s table tour.” These two projects offered a directional indication that long-term investments in specific community traditions are most likely the best fit when thinking about the type of engagement that might lead people to subscribe.

For the Bratchers, and for us, we feel even more confident that approaches which more deeply engage the community in the process of uncovering information and telling stories that matter about their place are crucial for a vibrant local ecosystem that supports a news organization. The innovations and experiments that showed the most promise for moving the needle were not the flashiest, and most were not the “shiny new objects” that have dominated news discussion. The ones that seemed to demonstrate the most resonance vis-à-vis the time and money required to make them happen were those most tied to community traditions and most focused on the community rather than the news organization itself.

As commonly happens, most of our experiments from the rural journalism innovation lab raised new questions that were beyond the scope of this current round of testing but are crucial for The Monitor to address:

  • How could offering a newsletter to current subscribers better promote the whole of the site’s work without taking up too much time to create, and how could a newsletter be extended to non-subscribers in a way that would increase awareness of the outlet’s content beyond the crime stories prioritized by Facebook’s algorithm?
  • Is there a way to develop an enterprise rate model for local employers to include a local news subscription as part of their benefits and offerings to employees?
  • Could discount strategies, advertiser-subsidized subscription giveaways, and/or even obtaining funding to subsidize subscriptions for some local residents give a publication like The Ohio County Monitor the breathing room and budget to jumpstart a more realized vision for the news organization it wants to provide? If local residents started with a subsidized subscription, how many of them would choose to renew once it required them to begin paying?
  • Would offering basic tutorials for navigating digital subscriptions and signups be useful or of interest to county residents? The library already plays a role in providing basic technological and digital literacy, for instance with classes like “Social Media Simplified,” which teaches people uncertain about the internet how to more effectively use platforms like Facebook that they want to connect to in order to better keep up with family and friends. We could imagine scenarios where the library could help people better understand how emerging digital subscription models—not just related to The Monitor—work.

Ultimately, Lee says, “What we’re trying to do is not for everybody. There’s going to be people out there who complain and tell us to go to hell for trying to get paid for what we’re doing. But, at the same time, there are people out there who appreciate what we’re doing and are willing to help support us. Those are the ones I’m doing this for. I’m just hoping, along the way, somebody who maybe wanted us to go to hell at first, I can . . . drag them into the 21st century and help them become informed as well.”

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Sam Ford and Andrea Wenzel are fellows at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Sam Ford is a media/journalism strategy consultant, research affiliate with MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing, and adjunct faculty member in the Western Kentucky University Department of Communication. Andrea Wenzel is an assistant professor at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication.