5 ways journalism startups can engage an audience

byJeremy CaplanAug 26, 2019 in Media Sustainability
Engaging an audience

Content overflows in our inboxes, social media channels, Netflix queues, and podcast players. Grabbing people’s attention is tough. Keeping it is even harder. Getting people to care enough about what you’re creating that they’ll pay for it is crucial. As entrepreneurs, we need people’s attention or money. To address that challenge, here are some tactics for engaging consumers that have been successful for contemporary journalism startups.


People may not remember to visit all the sites that interest them on a given day, but most of us check our email religiously. Our email inbox is akin to our physical mailbox. What’s in it has been sent specifically to us. Or at least, that’s how it used to feel. Increasingly, our inboxes are deluged with marketing messages, much as our physical mailboxes are overrun by junk mail. But because email is also used for personal and professional communication, people still scan their inboxes thoroughly. And when people read an email, they’re not seeing blinking ads or video messages. They’re focused — at least for that moment — on what it says. 

Creating valuable email messaging has become one of the most effective strategies news organizations use to capture and hold on to readers’ attention. By crafting narrowly targeted email newsletters that focus on very specific subjects that interest readers, publishers can ensure they get quality content — and related commercial messages that pay the bills — in front of readers regularly. 

Some brands, like The Skimm and The Morning Brew, have built their businesses entirely on email. That’s how they distribute all of their content. Others, ranging from local sites like The West Side Rag to bigger news brands like the Seattle Times, have used email as a way to engage readers with content that may lead them eventually back to a web site. 

One way of using email efficiently is to consider it as a curation channel. You can share with readers a concise, annotated guide to a few useful, interesting links in each email, whether or not you created that content. In essence, you’re showing readers that you’re a valuable guide to what they need or want to know about. That builds trust and encourages them to rely on you. For Quartz, a leading business news site, email newsletters are not designed to lead people back to a Web site, but serve instead as a self-contained reading experience that strengthens readers’ loyalty to the brand. 

Useful new tools for sending effective email efficiently include:

  •  Substack This new platform lets you create newsletters with both free and paid tiers. There’s no fee if you’re not charging recipients. 
  • Revue enables you to curate content easily and efficiently for your readers and charges a small monthly fee if you have more than 50 recipients. 

  • Mailchimp Though built more for marketing than for journalism, this remains a popular resource for small news startups because it allows you to serve up to 2,000 readers on your email list at no cost. 


Small events that put people in direct touch with others in their community are powerful engines of connection. When people go to an event and see friends or make new contacts, they’re likely to see the brand that hosted the event as a valuable resource. Whereby.us is a local news company aiming to help “the world's curious locals make the most of their cities.” When launching The New Tropic in Miami, they hosted small, friendly neighborhood events that helped establish the brand as a local resource. 6amCity runs six local sites in the Southeast U.S. Events are a big part of how they connect to community members. They describe their audience as “local, vocal, and social. Our readers get out and participate in the community 5-10+ times per month.” 


Many of the journalism startups that have grown the fastest, like The Skimm and The Morning Brew, enable and encourage active participation among readers. Skimm’basadors help spread the word about the newsletter to their friends, and Skimm readers more generally are encouraged to reply to the newsletter and to interact with the Skimm staff through text chats and email. What the F Just Happened Today is a site and daily newsletter focused on summing up and clarifying news about the Trump administration. Founder Matt Kiser engaged his readership by opening up a public Github repository that enables people to help with fact-checking, spell-checking, and proofreading for grammar. One reader offered to create a supplemental podcast that Kiser approved. 

Social sharing

No engagement strategy is complete without a focus on the social media channels where so many people spend so much time. Focus on what’s optimal for each channel.

  • Twitter can be about annotating and sharing useful links. The 74 Million, a news site covering U.S. education, draws attention to stories its 51,000 followers might otherwise have missed with pithy summaries. The Evergrey, a local newsletter in Seattle that’s part of the Whereby.us network, uses Twitter to promote content from others in its community.
  • Instagram is an ideal spot to highlight visuals of interest to your community. AVL Today, a local site in Asheville, North Carolina, uses its Instagram to highlight colorful local events, places and people for more than 19,000 Instagram fans.
  • Pinterest can be a helpful resource for collecting visuals in particular categories. Skift, a travel industry news brand, has 28 Pinterest boards, including ones devoted to industry stats and another showcasing trends in travel advertising. Both have more than 1,000 followers.
  • Facebook can be helpful for hosting community conversations. The New Yorker has a movie discussion club on Facebook, the New York Times has a podcast discussion group, and thousands of smaller new ventures have set up active discussion hubs as a way of engaging community members. The key is to respond to questions, suggestions and criticisms in a respectful, constructive way and not to ignore the community or assume that it will run by itself. A moderator is needed to nudge conversation forward and to help ensure that community members aren’t ignored by the publisher. 

One way to create social content effectively is to create visuals using Web tools or apps that have a unique visual look. A few examples:

  1. Create photo illustrations with apps like Waterlogue or Olli
  2. Create collages using Moldiv or Layout by Instagram  

  3. Create images with a layer of creative text using apps like Adobe Spark Post, Over or Typorama

Simple graphics created with free off-the-shelf tools like Canva and the Adobe Spark suite can go a long way toward creating engaging materials that work on social platforms. When consumers are scrolling through their social channels, or their email, or content sites they’re perusing, visuals are what stop them. That’s why they’re sometimes referred to as “thumbstoppers.” Words are easy to miss when people are browsing quickly. If you have compelling images to accompany your compelling text, you’re more likely to engage people than if you are focused exclusively on words.

One-on-one engagement

Mother Jones’ publisher regularly sends private notes to dedicated readers and contributors. Founders at other small news startups send their early readers direct email messages to solicit input and to engage them in conversation. Showing that you care about what individual readers think is a good way to engage them, and if you use email efficiently you can reach a substantial percentage of early readers with short personal notes. It does take a little extra effort, but it can help you stand out from more generic news brands.

Jeremy Caplan is Director of Teaching and Learning at CUNY's Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in NYC. Visit Journalism2030.com for a free collection of his entrepreneurial journalism resources. Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremycaplan or at jeremycaplan.com.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Rio Lecatompessy.