Nieman Foundation at Harvard
BREAKING: The ways people hear about big news these days; “into a million pieces,” says source
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Jan. 31, 2024, 11:05 a.m.
Audience & Social

How to meet readers where they are (when where they are is offline)

“Traffic to news sites through social media has dropped in recent years, and over half of adults over 65 don’t use social media at all. We wanted to build a way to get The City’s service journalism to New Yorkers who wouldn’t otherwise see it.”

Last November, Estella, a woman in The Bronx, didn’t have any heat in her apartment. Winter had just begun and she was cold, but she didn’t know what to do about it.

Then she got a postcard from The City, a local nonprofit newsroom covering New York City’s five boroughs. The card told her she had a legal right to have her apartment heated during the winter. After reading this, she called her landlord about getting it fixed, she told the outlet.

She had never heard of The City before reading the guide. But her first experience with their journalism helped her make a decision toward making her life better. And it all started with a postcard The City sent in the mail.

As a student at New York University’s Studio 20 masters program, I collaborated with The City’s Rachel Holliday Smith, Diana Riojas, Scott Klein, Sam Rabiyah, and Zainab Shah, along with my classmate Bharbi Hazarika, to build a way to introduce new readers to their journalism in real life.

The City regularly publishes powerful service journalism, with answers to important questions that New Yorkers have about life in their city. But because they’re a digital publication, they’re missing out on offline readers who could greatly benefit from their reporting.

This problem isn’t unique to New York City. Traffic to news sites through social media has dropped in recent years, and over half of adults over 65 don’t use social media at all. We wanted to build a way to get The City’s service journalism to New Yorkers who wouldn’t otherwise see it being promoted online.

Here’s the (simplified) strategy we used:

  • Match a piece of service journalism to a location.
  • Directly deliver impactful information to that area.
  • Measure success, and repeat.

We tested this method on three pieces of The City’s service and data journalism.

First, we made a postcard promoting their rent map tool. The tool shows where in New York City apartments are being removed from rent stabilization, the regulatory tool the city has used for decades to keep rental prices affordable.

One of the most exciting things we found out was how to localize the distribution down to individual city blocks. After locating a particular area where many apartments appeared to be deregulated, we used a marketing service from the United States Post Office to deliver postcards to every single residential address on an intersecting mail route.

To test our method’s success, we simultaneously ran a localized Facebook ad for the story. We found that readers who got postcards were not only more likely to visit The City’s website, but also stayed on the site for longer than those who clicked on the story via Facebook. The postcard method also allowed us to target an area that was over 30 times smaller than that covered by the Facebook ad.

Encouraged by these results, we tested the postcard strategy again, this time with The City’s guide to getting your heat fixed. To locate the most relevant neighborhood to the story, we used 311 call data to find the New York zip codes with the most heat-related complaints per person. Then, we sent the guide to nearly 1,400 addresses via postcards.

We also built in a survey that would only be accessible by readers who scanned the postcard. We asked questions about how helpful the guide was to readers. This is how we learned about Estella from the Bronx, and the steps she took after reading the guide.

For our third test, we took The City’s guide on how to snoop through publicly available property records and turned it into a flyer. Because the guide deals with digital research skills, we chose to leave it at public libraries all over New York City.

We found this to be a great low-cost option to experiment with print. It also helped us build relationships with local librarians. After reading our flyer, one librarian even asked us about putting on an event at their branch.

While not every local newsroom covers rent destabilization, chilly apartments, and property records, most places have the basic ingredients for a project like this, which are:

  • Journalism that has something useful to offer, explains a complex topic, or offers a solution to a relevant problem.
  • Citizens who have questions that your work can answer.
  • Infrastructure that allows you to get a message out to people in the real world, like the post office, a library, a bulletin board, or something else.

After our three experiments, here are some of the key things we learned, and should be kept in mind if you want to try something similar with your newsroom.

When picking content and matching it to a location, start by asking “what questions can we answer with this piece?” Then think about where in your community those questions might be being asked. Is it a certain neighborhood or a certain type of establishment? Think about how you could use data to figure out where people are asking this.

Your print product should function as a standalone piece of journalism. This isn’t just a promotion strategy. Be sure that your work makes the first move, addresses the reader directly, and delivers something of value before asking for clicks.

Instead of asking if readers liked the piece, build your feedback strategy around asking what the journalism helped them do. Your measure of success should revolve around whether or not you helped a reader make a real decision in their life.

Opt for low-cost, replicable tests. These experiments were promising, but they were also unpredictable, so it’s best to do small, measured tests that can be tweaked and repeated based on what you find.

As a final deliverable, I’ve written a comprehensive guidebook for local newsrooms that want to try their own print experiments. It goes into much greater detail about strategy, costs, measuring success, and more. The guide can be found here, or at my website.

As journalists speculate about whether news is entering a “post-social media” era, we raise a lot of questions about how to move forward with reaching new audiences. I believe local news is in an interesting position to innovate here because of its unique ability to establish a physical presence in the communities it covers.

“A big part of our newsroom’s mission is helping New Yorkers get the information they need to live better lives in our complex city. But so often, our service reporting doesn’t find the people who need it the most,” said Rachel Holliday Smith, associate editor at The City overseeing explanatory and service journalism. “This project opened our eyes to how we can use postcards through snail mail to reach people with limited access to the internet in a cost and time-effective way. The success we’ve had with this strategy is in turn informing our approach for our upcoming project about Superfund sites in Brooklyn and Queens.”

Although our project just scratches the surface of this issue, I hope it will help news outlets think about getting their journalism to more people who could use it.

Owen Berg is a journalist and graphic designer based in New York City. He recently graduated from New York University’s Studio 20 journalism masters program. He can be found at, or on X at @owen_19999.

Photo of The City postcards by Owen Berg.

POSTED     Jan. 31, 2024, 11:05 a.m.
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