The first few months of the pandemic tore through us with uncertainty, confusion, and loss. During those times, many of us turned to local media to get the latest news on how our respective regions were affected by the virus. Though COVID-19 was happening everywhere, it impacted different communities in distinct ways.
Not at all surprisingly, the popularity of local media grew considerably during this period, with many of these news organisations reporting major readership boosts that were even higher than national or partisan media sites.
The hope in many newsrooms was that this trend would hold up for the duration of the pandemic, but perhaps too few of us expected that it would drag on well past its tolerable date. Consequently, traffic to news sites has since taken a dip.
One reason may be the avoidance of or loss of interest in COVID-related news, which one study attributed to, among other things, PTSD symptoms and less fear of COVID, possibly due to the vaccine. Another reason is that 2020 was a federal election year in the United States, with all the fanfare that comes with it.
Despite this plateau, this is actually a golden opportunity to find new ways of connecting with local audiences. And I’d like to suggest making it about them.
1. Amplify your community’s voice
Unless they’re policymakers or members of the medical and scientific community, there’s a good chance your audience feels like the pandemic is something over which they have absolutely no control. This might contribute to their waning interest in pandemic news. One way to give them a sense of agency is to elevate their voice on your platform.
“We’re no longer in the era of megaphone media,” says Mark Zohar, president and COO of Viafoura. “People expect a two-way dialogue, to belong and contribute to a community, and when you welcome that, they find it empowering.”
In more concrete terms, facilitating a two-way dialogue means creating experiences your audience will want to be a part of — whether it’s asking for their unique take on a topic or live features they can take part in. It can start with a simple question: What matters to you right now?
2. Create a community-centered experience
The Independent started hosting a regular series of live Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions with travel correspondent Simon Calder, tackling ever-evolving travel restrictions due to COVID. The news site also features other live chat events with experts on a variety of topics, giving readers a chance to be part of niche conversations as they’re happening. All in, AMA content at The Independent has generated 1 million article views.
Elsewhere, the Philadelphia Inquirer launched Gameday Central in September 2021. The central hub is hosted on its Web site and was conceived to generate buzz during Philadelphia Eagles games. It features a live pre-game video show — streamed on social media and its Web site. While the game is on, a second-screen experience on the platform where users interact through commenting, pinning comments, polls, and a live blog. The Inquirer’s managing editor of sports, Michael Huang, told Digiday the event attracts thousands of users. The publication hopes to create similar community-centered programming for all sports.
Beyond promising performance metrics, these types of community-based events have a few ancillary benefits:
- They’re an opportunity to reach a broader audience because those who participate are likely to share it with the people in their circles who have the same interests.
- Their participation could prompt discussions about other stories that could involve more community members, helping you formulate a long-term community-based content strategy.
- When participants interact with community events, they create compelling content for you at no additional cost.
- Finally, you’re in control of an experience your audience is having on your own platform.
3. Take your audience back from social media
Social media has certainly contributed to people expecting a two-way dialogue, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it on social media’s terms. The fact that Facebook’s massive outage last October created a huge surge in organic traffic to news sites suggests that social media’s hold on your audience is at best conditional and at worst frail.
So, if you incentivise your audience by providing rich experiences on your platform, they might even prefer going directly to you. Because despite social media’s ubiquity, its popularity has faded since the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018. And only a small percentage of users aged 15-24 and older than 40 years old actually trust it.
The climate is ripe to provide alternative community hubs for your audience that can be more civil, relevant, and fun than what social media has to offer.
4. Understand your role in your community
Local news brands are inherently aligned with their communities. They are as much a part of the regions they serve as their audience. Local media has insights into their landscape that national, partisan, and social media organisations are rarely invested in or even equipped to cover with the same finesse.
While it’s important to report on international events — especially when they impact your community — local media brands can afford to give their lens a hyper-regional focus. That focus reflects your audience’s values, but they’ll be even more excited about it if they get to take part.