How listening to your readers can help you build a better outlet

Before VTDigger launched, founder Anne Galloway called almost 100 people across Vermont to get feedback.

This week, I wanted to ask a question fundamental to media entrepreneurship: How do you know when you’ve got an idea for a viable outlet? It’s one thing to dream about how you would run a great publication — it’s an entirely different matter to do it.

To find out, I spoke to a woman considered one of the biggest successes of the non-profit news sector: Anne Galloway. She’s the founder of Vermont’s VTDigger, a statewide news and watchdog site that averages about 300,000 pageviews a month (pre-COVID), has won numerous awards, and, by 2022, expects to have an annual operating budget of almost $3 million, according to the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Here’s how she became a publisher.

In 2009, Galloway was laid off from her reporting gig at the Times Argus, a daily newspaper serving Montpelier, Vermont’s state capital. She needed a new job.

Even before she was let go, Galloway was thinking that Vermont needed stronger enterprise and investigative journalism. 

“I had a sense that there would be demand from readers for the kind of reporting I thought was really missing in the landscape.” She wanted to start her own media outlet — one that would do the type of in-depth journalism Vermont needed.

But first, Galloway decided to find out what people wanted from news outlets in Vermont, using some good old fashioned reporting skills. She called about 100 people across Vermont, focusing on people involved in the business community. “That was important because I just needed feedback,” she says. “About half the people I talked to said, ‘Oh God, you’re insane.’ The other half said, ‘You know what? This is okay — maybe I can help you.’” Making those connections were essential in building an audience. That group that offered to help Galloway became her first readers.

What she heard from people was that they felt coverage of Vermont’s legislature was weak. So that became her beat. It had the added benefit of keeping her in one place, while still being able to report on issues affecting all of Vermont. “It was one of the smartest decisions I made because it enabled us to reach everyone in the state pretty quickly,” Galloway says.

Listening to the community has guided the Digger since its inception. Editors and reporters pay careful attention to pitches, following up on everything. “Because people know that we look into things and will write stories based on their tips, on their concerns, that direct reader engagement is what fuels the whole operation,” Galloway says. She is clear that part of what they do is meet the needs of readers — and that’s how they successfully encourage them to become members or make large donations. “I don’t like to think of it as the sort of paternalistic, journalists-know-best kind of approach,” she adds.

The success of this approach has been most apparent as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. VTDigger has been inundated with questions and tips that led to reporters doing extensive coverage of the state’s unemployment insurance system, among other things. “We [had] about 350,000 to 400,000 readers a month last year, and the beginning of this year,” Galloway says. “In March 2020, we had a million unique visitors, and in April, we had 1.2 million. We’re in a state of 626,000 people.”

Galloway says all the things that make a business – the legal side, the grant writing, running it — are not that hard to learn. 

The tricky part is figuring out what it is of value you can offer people. 

In the news

  • It’s that special time of year when the Reuters Institute releases its annual Digital News Report. This year’s edition has found that attracting subscribers often comes down the distinctiveness and quality of information they are getting — that said, big brands still dominate subscription revenue. In Canada, there was a four-point jump in the number of people willing to pay for news.
  • For the Columbia Journalism Review, James Ball explains why micropayments are a hard sell for the news business.
  • If we can’t trust the cops, how do we reimagine crime reporting? Allegra Hobbs spoke to a few reporters on what the future of the beat might look like. (This one is for Study Hall patrons only — a good excuse to sign up.)
  • Here’s how The Compass Experiment got two outlets launched during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opportunities

  • The Fund for Investigative Journalism has launched a rolling grant for U.S. journalists covering police misconduct.
  • On June 25, Investigative Reporters and Editors is hosting a webinar on looking for investigative angles on education stories in the age of COVID-19.
  • Early bird prices are available for Pandemic University, which announces its summer semester lineup on July 1.

And one more thing

“It’s grossly unfair how often racialized staff everywhere make ourselves vulnerable just so our workplaces are more bearable, never mind actually fair. We organize workshops, sit on committees, and respond to white colleagues’ inquiries—which are well-meaning and even intelligent, but also labour, for which we should be recognized and paid.”

Anyone working in newsrooms, especially white journalists with assigning, editing and hiring power, should read this Chatelaine piece by Denise Balkissoon about why she left the Globe and Mail.

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