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Sept. 24, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

The new folks in town are an untapped audience for local news (even if they don’t stay forever)

“I started to recognize the value of local news as a journalist, yet spent no time on it as a local resident of Washington, D.C.”

How do newcomers to transient communities like San Francisco or Washington, D.C. — which land on this list of some of the most transient U.S. cities — discover information, including news, about their new regions? It’s a question I started thinking about when I considered the tension between my experiences as a local news consumer and as a journalist.

I had lived in Washington, D.C., for five years when I landed at McClatchy to build a national video operation to serve local audiences. I started to recognize the value of local news as a journalist, yet spent no time on it as a local resident of Washington, D.C. I was always one foot out the door in D.C. Not a homeowner. Not a parent. Why did I need to understand local issues?

It was people like me that were the exact problem with Washington, D.C., where rent was on the rise as more and more young professionals moved to the city, often unbothered by the impact of their arrival on long-term residents. In this realization, I started to dive into local issues, but found it was difficult to start. When I moved to California 18 months later for the John S. Knight Journalism fellowship, I had the same experience. So I decided to spend my fellowship year learning more about the ways millennials moving to the Bay Area were discovering local information. In over a dozen interviews with millennials in the Bay Area, I learned that individuals get more news and information from the people they already know in their new communities than they do from local news sources.

I learned that people started with their professional networks to find connections. They also dig deep into the personal networks to find at least one local person to lean on. For example, one Bay Area mother I spoke with joined a WeChat group with 500 people when she moved to the area. The group members comment on issues impacting their communities and share tips on local resources like doctors. Others are on NextDoor.

It’s an information gap that presents an opportunity for local newsrooms everywhere: They can capture the attention of newcomers to their communities with unique content that makes them feel like instant insiders. Newsrooms can grow revenue and engagement by capturing the attention of these audiences as soon as they arrive.

The newsrooms doing this today tend to be the exception, but The Pilot in North Carolina is proving that the value of this product is not only good for building a new audience but reinvigorating long-time readers.

David Woronoff, the publisher of The Pilot, decided he needed to capture this audience after he noticed a trend of young military families choosing to move to Southern Pines, N.C., rather than to military town of Fayetteville where Fort Bragg, the largest U.S. army base, is located. Combine that with his daughter telling him he needed to create a “Skimm-like” product.

“What we found was that folks who wouldn’t normally engage with local media wanted the information we have. They just didn’t like the way we were delivering it to them,” said Woronoff. Even if they were off to their next military post within a few years, “we’re still their connection to the Sandhills.”

And so The Sway, a twice-weekly newsletter, was born. With the tagline “The Sway is the friend you never knew you always needed,” it captured a new audience with a conversational voice, a mix of news, and a guide to local experiences — and little affiliation with the newspaper brand. As the team designed the product and talked to newcomers, they learned they weren’t looking for special treatment. They just wanted to know what many of the locals already knew, like which preschools to send their kids or where to eat on a Friday night. They didn’t want to feel like they were outsiders just because they were affiliated with the military and might not have any other ties to the area, said The Sway editor Abbi Overfelt.

“They moved here because they really didn’t want to have the experience that living closer to base would have provided them,” Overfelt said. “They wanted a better experience.”

One reader told Overfelt, “It’s changed how I live my life here and I want to help spread how much I love it to everybody.” This reader went on to become an evangelist for The Sway and later an employee, signing up new readers at (pre-Covid) events around town. The newsletter now has more than 16,000 subscribers — more than there are people in Southern Pines (where the population is a little under 15,000). About a third of them have connections to the military.

It’s not just readers who are showing up — it’s advertisers as well. They’re often interested in the newsletter first, Overfelt said, and “it kind of lets our ad team get in the door.” said Overfelt.

The Sway isn’t the only example. Embarcadero Media in the San Francisco Bay Area created a newsletter called The Six Fifty, targeted at people commuting between San Francisco and tech campuses in Silicon Valley. The Seattle Times has a newcomers guide, although it hasn’t been updated in a couple of years, to cater to the influx of newcomers working for Amazon, among other companies. Spectrum News in Austin delivers newcomers a one-stop shop for utility providers, trash pick-up, public safety information, and things to do.

While news teams continue to follow the news cycle, these publications are also seeing a benefit in offering evergreen content that can continually build relationships with newcomers. As they help new community members make new habits, they are also making their publications one of those habits.

JulieAnn McKellogg is the head of audience growth at Subtext, the cofounder of Pactio, and a 2018 JSK Fellow.

Suitcase by Drew Coffman used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 24, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
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