Simply putting out good journalism is just the first step. Publications have to constantly find new ways to ensure that content reaches new readers.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the easiest paid acquisition tactics for email subscribers: lead generation ads on social media, ad spots in related newsletters, or even ads on Google’s Display Network. Putting money behind the outlet guarantees new readers—fast. But it takes more time and effort to get these new readers to buy into what you do and support you with a financial contribution.
News startups that rely on reader revenue can’t play the waiting game. While paid acquisition helps keep the marketing funnel healthy, investing in organic growth can bring in more “qualified leads” a.k.a. readers that are more invested in your mission and, therefore, more willing to give.
Our Indiegraf partner publishers have used Instagram, TikTok, and Reddit to organically engage existing readers and reach new ones. Here, they share the steps it took to build a community of supporters who will step up when it’s time to fundraise.
Take inspiration from outside the industry
The Kansas City Defender’s Instagram feed doesn’t look anything like social accounts from other news outlets. That’s because they know their 25,000 followers—Black young adults interested in sports and entertainment—will scroll right past heavily-edited photos and long copy.
The Defender took inspiration from hip-hop accounts that built engaged communities. “We see that their aesthetic strategy and way of packaging information attracts Gen Z nationally so we’ve taken visual inspiration from these pages and applied a similar strategy but in a local context,” says publisher Ryan Sorrell. The strategy relies on sharing unfiltered, “in-the-moment” photos and writing captions the same way they’d text a friend.
They prioritize posting easily digestible key takeaways and engaging their followers. For example, the team asked readers to help curate a Kansas City playlist or weigh in on what other outlets are saying about their city.
“Very early on, we posted our stories everywhere, until we started to understand the different demographics and different cultures on each platform,” says Ryan. Now, the platform determines how The Defender packages its stories.
Think of each communications channel as a different product that serves different audiences. For example, The Defender’s website readers have a longer attention span, so the outlet will post in-depth pieces like this investigation into missing Black women. But on TikTok, the outlet has a narrator break down key points using the green screen filter—a trend that is already popular on the platform. Meanwhile, on Instagram, The Defender uses a carousel with one key takeaway on each slide, adapting to younger audiences’ short attention spans.
Build trusting relationships within your community
Community-centered journalism is a two-way street! Some local publications will host office hours at a local coffee shop or pub, where community members can stop by and get to know the team. Another tactic is to bring those conversations online.
You’ll find all of RANGE Media’s articles on the Spokane subreddit—but they don’t just hit “post” and move on. They spend five to six hours every week replying to comments on their articles and on news that other Redditors have shared. It pays off: Reddit is consistently the second biggest driver of traffic from social media for the outlet.
RANGE’s audience and membership editor Valerie Osier recommends finding subreddits (topic-specific forums) where you can have conversations in good faith. For example, a local news outlet could experiment with posting in its city’s subreddit, like RANGE in r/Spokane. But if that seems too daunting, you might be able to find a niche subreddit—especially if the outlet serves a larger city.
Once you’ve decided where you want to engage, lurk around to get a sense of the forum’s culture: What are the subreddit’s rules? What’s the etiquette around posting? When ready, approach the community from a place of genuine respect for the space you’ve been invited to participate in.
If you’ve seen your stories shared with a varying reception, consider asking the subreddit’s moderator if you can host an Ask Me Anything (AMA): “Say ‘Hey, I’m from this publication. We notice we get a lot of traffic from Reddit and people have a lot of things to say about it. Could we do an AMA to introduce ourselves?,’” recommends Valerie. RANGE hosted one in 2022, in which the outlet spoke directly about its mission and the way they cover the news—fairly, not impartially.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to share your thoughts! “[We’re] just honest and [don’t] pretend like we are this objective, all-seeing entity that doesn’t have an opinion,” says Valerie. Keep an open mind, stick to the facts, and allow yourself to be held accountable. On Reddit, RANGE will share factoids that didn’t make it into the article—and in return, fellow Redditors will occasionally bring follow-up information, which ends up as an update to a related article.
Lean on your fans to crowdfund a loan
Traditional bank loans, with high interest rates and short repayment terms, can be inaccessible for small businesses. Tone Madison decided to ask readers for help instead.
A no-interest, crowdfunded Kiva loan “gave people who already know and support us an additional way to help out,” says publisher Scott Gordon. In the past, the outlet only asked readers for donations. A loan can feel less daunting to folks who are hesitant to make a donation but still want to support you financially.
Tone Madison’s readers stepped up, helping the outlet raise $10,000 in less than two weeks. “This gives us a little extra breathing room to put our plans into action,” says Scott.
But remember: loans are still loans. While reader revenue can help cover the costs of day-to-day operations, loan funds are best poured back into more revenue-generating activities, like a membership program or hiring a development professional. If your publication relies on reader revenue, be clear about what the difference is between a loan and a donation, and explain why the outlet is asking for a loan instead.
As a news startup, you’re putting everything you have into building up a publication that serves your community. Whether you want to invest in paid or organic growth tactics, Indiegraf can help make sure your journalism gets in front of your target audience.