A Primer on Building Sustainable Local Civics News

August 12, 2021

Greetings, everyone, and welcome back to another edition of The Alliance. We've got some really exciting news this week, so let's get right to it.

Becky Pallack (NewStart class of ‘21) and Irene McKisson are work partners who co-founded a digital news vertical called #ThisIsTucson (thisistucson.com). It operates as a startup venture and learning lab under the umbrella of the Arizona Daily Star (tucson.com). The team learned how to attract and grow a younger digital audience, how to sell digital advertising products in new ways, and how to build a membership program to support local journalism.

They recently left their jobs to take on a new challenge: Build a sustainable local civics news model that can meet digital readers where they are now. They’re in startup mode to build an ambitious nonprofit civic news organization for Arizona. 

Here's Becky with more on this new venture, and how they got to this point. Becky, take it away!

We’re working on two big questions at the front of this startup process: Who is local civic news for (who is the audience)? And are there enough philanthropic dollars in Arizona to make our news organization sustainable?

Irene and I have spent a lot of time finding ways to bring lean-startup and product-thinking methods to audience development work in journalism. That just means we’re trying to apply proven innovation methods to make products that audiences will love — and pay for.

We’ve learned that “who is it for?” should determine what the product is. To do that, you have to start by deeply understanding the audience and its news and information needs, then come up with an idea that will meet those needs, test it with actual audience members, iterate based on what you learned from the test — and then build, test and learn some more. 

A lot of journalism projects get this work backward — they create something they assume is needed and then they go looking for an audience.

Here are the steps we followed to get started on our audience research. Anyone can do this! 

  • Step 1: Pick a Target Audience

Who might our future loyal readers be? Who do we want to get to know better? We think our target audience member is someone who will show up for a community cause. They are engaged in civic life in some way, or they would be if they knew what to do. We pictured people who care about a cause so much that they’d hold a sign for it.

  • Step 2: Write a Hypothesis About a Problem the Target Audience is Having

We made some assumptions about what we think the audience’s needs are. This is like a hypothesis at the school science fair.

Our hypothesis was that local civic news often isn’t relevant, it’s hard to find, and it feels old-fashioned. Often the helpful information our audience needs wouldn’t be considered newsworthy by the old guard. Civics news sometimes doesn’t exist at the local level, and at the state level it’s not made relevant for them. They’re actively seeking out news and information about the causes they care about (education funding, anti-racism, environmentalism, local social issues) but the news often shows up at the end of this process, which is frustrating for our audience.

  • Step 3: List Your Knowns and Unknowns

We made a two-column list of things we think we know about our audience and things we know we don’t know. We focused our learning on the Unknowns, like “how do they participate in local civic life?” and “do they pay for news and information about the causes they care about?”

  • Step 4: Empathy Interviews

We turned the list of things we needed to learn into a questionnaire. We talked to 14 diverse people who were in our target audience of people who are engaged in local civic life. We asked them to talk about the cause they care about most, how they got involved, all the ways they participate or take action around that cause, and how they get news and information. Empathy interviews come from Design Thinking, and the goal is to deeply understand what problems we might be able to help solve. We get obsessed with understanding what the audience needs.

  • Step 5: Identify Gaps and Opportunities

We used the insights from that round of interviews to create a reader persona, including details like what they do, what they say, and what they feel. We thought about what “jobs” they might “hire” us to do, like helping them know what actions they can take to participate in local civic life, helping them identify service opportunities, connecting them to each other, and helping them feel like educated voters.

We also gained an understanding of where and how they currently get their news and information, what’s missing for them, and points of dissatisfaction with what’s available. We narrowed in on a few key topics that we might be able to cover so well that they would become members and pay us.

That led us to study local media ecosystems in Arizona, to look for more gaps and opportunities rather than doubling up or competing.

Ongoing audience research work will be baked into every aspect of our startup, including content strategy, product strategy, and revenue strategy. 

  • Want to Help Our Arizona Startup Launch?

We’re in full-time fundraising mode, with the goal of building a three-year seed fund before launch. We’d love connections to foundations, advice about fundraising, and chances to practice talking to funders.

You can reach me at [email protected] or @BeckyPallack on Twitter.

All of us at the NewStart program are very excited for what Becky and Irene are doing. It's a bold move to just up and quit your job and start something from scratch, but they're going to be successful, as they have the drive and ability to make this happen.

I will echo what Becky said above: If you have any ability to help them on their path to success, please get in contact with Becky at the email or Twitter account above. It's the right thing to do, and the right time to do it. Thanks!

And because Becky always goes above and beyond, she also gave us a list of her favorite resources. So if you're thinking about doing something similar, or just want to learn more about the process, this will be a great first step:

Becky’s favorite resources

If you want to do your own audience research to vet a startup idea or an innovation project, here are some of my favorite resources to help you get started: