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Developing loyalty means developing your talent

“A great writer’s name carries weight, and their most loyal readers will follow them anywhere. In 2019, publishers will stop chasing virality and instead double down on developing loyalty, using their own talent.”

One of the side effects of Facebook being a dominant platform for distributing news is that people get their information from pages or their friends, disconnected from the journalists who helped put a story together. This helped level the journalistic playing field in ways both good and bad; it allowed small publications to fight for attention in the same arena as established news institutions, but it also allowed fake news publishers and partisan political operatives to disseminate propaganda that looked a lot like news.

Over the past few years, figuring out how to create content for the Facebook algorithm could make or break a company. But that era is over now; distribution opportunities are more limited, and much of the speculation post-algorithm shift has been about how publishers can better stand independent, without completely relying on third-party platforms for sustenance.

With that change comes a conversation about loyalty — fostering and nurturing relationships with readers. That can include newsletters, podcasts, live events, or exclusive content. At the center of many of these loyalty-oriented efforts is increased access to talent — which means that, in order to grow, publications will need to embrace the growing public profiles of their journalists.

A great example of this is The Atlantic and Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was a significant loss when Coates left the magazine; many of his readers had been devoted to him since he began blogging for the site in 2008. Coates and his fanbase grew along with the magazine’s digital presence, always intertwined, and he became The Atlantic’s signature writer at the same time as he emerged as the brilliant bestselling author we know today.

A less traditional model is the two-year-old Crooked Media, formed after the 2016 election. Crooked Media started with podcasts and live shows first, based on the strength of the personalities of the founders; loyalty to the company allowed Crooked to expand to include an entire podcast network, a line of merchandise, a robust web presence, a carefully curated newsletter, and a show on HBO.

Loyalty ultimately extends across platforms. If you like a writer, you might subscribe to their publication, but you might also listen to their podcast, buy their books, watch their shows, wear their merch, or get tickets to see them speak. Most importantly, these relationships can last decades.

Growing up, my dad and I loved the writers for The Washington Post’s sports section, particularly Tony Kornheiser. When Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon got a show on ESPN, I was elated — we could get a little bit of Uncle Tony on TV every day. I even bought one of his books called I’m Back For More Cash, which I thought was hilarious. (I still do.) Kornheiser doesn’t write much these days, but my dad still listens to Kornheiser’s podcast every day on his way to work — a sign of loyalty to someone that’s been part of our lives for 25 years.

A great writer’s name carries weight, and their most loyal readers will follow them anywhere. In 2019, publishers will stop chasing virality and instead double down on developing loyalty, using their own talent.

Renan Borelli is a senior editor for digital storytelling at The New York Times.

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