3 min read

My plan to grow Rethinking News

It takes time for an online publication to gain momentum.
My plan to grow Rethinking News

Yesterday's post was my first about broader trends in the media industry—as opposed to my own project. It was not a big hit. A few kind souls retweeted it (thanks Will!), but otherwise it got little notice from the Internet at large.

In the 24 hours since it was published, I've gained only 10 new subscribers, bringing the total to 560. For comparison, my stories at Vox or Ars Technica typically got 10,000 to 50,000 pageviews. The Rethinking News project won't be viable if I continue growing this slowly.

I'm not too bummed out, though, because I expect our growth rate to accelerate over time.

An online publication is built on a basic feedback loop: I publish an article. People read it. Some of them like it enough to share with others, and my audience grows. When I publish the next article, I have a few more readers who might share it, and so the audience grows a little faster.

A less obvious feedback loop involves sources. A compelling newsletter has information people can't get anywhere else. That means I need people—sources—to tell me stuff that's not widely known. The best sources tend to be busy, and they may also be wary of talking to reporters—especially reporters they haven't heard of.

This is a dilemma every reporter faces when they start a new beat. And it's a bigger challenge when starting a completely new publication. When I emailed people as a reporter for the Washington Post, almost everyone responded. Fewer do now.

But either way, the solution is to just start writing. Even if my first few articles aren't deeply informed or insightful, they help to get my name out there. Many potential sources—which in my case includes other reporters, editors, media executives, and journalism professors—pay closer attention to writing about their industry than the general public does.

Gradually, insiders will start to notice my work. If it's good, more people will be willing to talk to me. Some people will even start pitching me story ideas

And of course, these two feedback loops interact. With better sources I can write better articles. Better articles will get shared more widely and grow my audience faster. A bigger audience raises my profile and makes it easier to cultivate new sources.

Once I have some original reporting under my belt, I'll pursue a third avenue of growth: promotion by other media. I'll pitch myself as a guest on podcasts and as an expert other reporters can quote in news stories. That's easier to do if I have a large audience and interesting content. And the more I'm cited as an expert, the more my audience will grow.

The feedback loops I described above mean that there's the potential for exponential audience growth. In a month or two, I hope to be picking up a lot more than 10 subscribers per post. If that doesn't happen, I'll need to re-evaluate my broader strategy.

I'll close by mentioning a growth strategy I'm going to try not to use heavily. This week actress Ellie Kemper has been embroiled in a controversy about participating in a beauty pageant when she was 19 years old. The whole thing seems stupid to me, and I think tech giants like Google deserve some blame for driving so much traffic to stories like this. I suspect that if I had written about this, it would have gotten a lot more attention than yesterday's post about blogging.

But focusing on these kinds of culture-war controversies is the journalistic equivalent of a chef using a lot of salt or sugar to make a bland dish more appetizing. It might get me subscribers, but it's also likely to irritate some of the people I'd most like to have in my audience. It also risks painting myself into an ideological corner.

I'm not above writing about hot-button topics. I'm planning to write about media bias and Tesla for example. But I want to do it sparingly and only when I feel I have something particularly interesting to say.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay.

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