Finding a Community in a Haystack

This is a picture of the Balloon Saloon on a Tribeca-street corner in Lower Manhattan. Blocks away from the World Trade Center’s high-end retail mall, the Balloon Saloon specializes in serving a sliver of New York City’s population.

There are 1.6 million people living in Manhattan. Around 500,000 people live on the southern half of island, within range of the Balloon Saloon. Sure–the store might serve the other boroughs and even parts of New Jersey. But what proportion of that population are customers of the Balloon Saloon? That’s a rhetorical question, but it’s safe to say it’s small.

The Balloon Saloon has found a community to serve in the 1.6 million-person haystack of NYC. How can news organizations find communities to serve within their wider audience, whether it’s 10,000 readers or 10 million?

An example of finding a community in a haystack.

Ask A Question

The answer: ask a question.

All relationships start with a conversation. Conversations start with a question: “Hi, how are you?” or “Are you from around here?” or “How has the Trump presidency affected you?”

That last question is there to make the point that newsrooms and journalists are ultimately in conversation with the public they serve. The process of reporting news is actually answering questions reporters and journalists assume audiences have. Things like “Am I being hoodwinked by any of the stores I frequent or brands I buy?” or “How did the town council vote on that ordinance?” or “Is the president putting his business interests before public interests?”

What newsrooms often fail to realize is that their reporting is not the end of the conversation. It is a prelude to a much larger public discussion and debate. Therefore, it is a newsroom’s moral responsibility to try to facilitate a constructive conversation around these issues by asking questions of their readers.

It is also in their editorial and business interests, because it is by asking these questions that newsrooms can find communities in their haystacks. Here’s an example:

Alabamians and Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Nearly 1 in 4 users who saw this question left their opinion on the first day of voting.

AL.com built and ran this Opinary poll this week, asking their readers if Attorney General Jeff Sessions should resign over undisclosed conversations with Russia. The engagement rate on this poll on the first day of voting was the second highest in the Opinary network, at just about 25%.

What that means is that AL.com has found a community in their haystack of 13 million monthly users.

Admittedly, it would have been safe to assume that residents from Session’s home state would have a lot to say on the matter. But this is an example of how asking a question and listening to your audience can a) potentially blow your mind if opinion trends are unexpected and b) help push editorial and business development in a new direction.

How does a question like this inform strategy? Well now there seems to be an editorial and business case for…

  • a news product with a focus on Sessions
  • events to facilitate discussion among AL.com readers on this question
  • an opportunity to find the 5% of readers in middle and ask them about their nuanced opinion

With this process, you’ve found a community to serve by asking a question, seeing an engaged response to the question, and ideating around how to serve the community that responded.

Questions Are the Answer

I believe that it is in service to the public that journalists and newsrooms can find meaning and mission but also revenue to support that mission. Questions are the answer to finding that mission. The first stage is to deepen our relationship with the audience and the first step in that process is to ask a question. Find the answer to your questions by asking those questions of others. What do you have to lose?

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