Trying to get more “eyeballs” on your news coverage? Consider innovative approaches to audience development taken by these three award-winning local publishers.

Green Valley News, a Wick Communications product in Arizona, decided to start its own social network. That idea earned the newspaper first-place recognition for Best Digital Audience Growth Strategy as part of the 2020 Local Media Association Digital Innovation Awards. The Sheboygan Sun was runner-up, and startup newsletter Raleigh Convergence received third-place honors.

Here is a rundown of best practices and lessons learned from each operation:

1. Connect neighbors and join the conversation

Wick Communications launched its own social media project through third-party tools and platforms over the past year, led and moderated by dedicated journalist product managers. Wick received strong financial support through the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge.

The result is NABUR, short for “Neighborhood Alliance for Better Understanding and Respect,” a platform now hosted by four Wick Communications newspapers — with two more launching in July. The forum helps create a dialogue between readers and reporters, who answer questions to keep the community informed.

The Green Valley News & Sahuarita Sun (Arizona) and Wenatchee World (Washington) were the initial Wick-owned products to launch NABUR, followed by the Sierra Vista Herald/Review (Arizona) and the Montrose Daily Press (Colorado). In addition to cultivating community discussion and debunking rumors and conspiracy theories, news staff answer quality-of-life questions, such as “Why is gas more expensive in Green Valley versus Tucson?” and “Which playgrounds are open in Wenatchee during the pandemic?” They also remind readers about related coverage when fielding inquiries.

The initiative is the brainchild of Wick Chief Executive Officer Francis Wick, who wanted a journalist-led response to the rise of community discussions on platforms such as Nextdoor and Facebook. Each local platform is managed by a digitally-focused journalist/product manager, and the goal is to strengthen the connection with the community so that members see the value in financially supporting community journalism through paid subscriptions to the website.

So far, communities have embraced the community-hosted discussions, with higher registrations to the free platform than initially expected as well as 21% loyal users and 36% newsletter open rates.

“Despite significant challenges in meeting the unique needs of news operations with the existing tech platforms available, we’ve been really encouraged by the enthusiasm our communities have expressed for the current NABUR platform and its potential,” said Sean Fitzpatrick, Wick digital director. “What we’ve especially seen is how crucial the dedicated journalist product manager and the curated e-newsletters are to NABUR’s success and growth.”

2. Let reader engagement guide your growth

The Sheboygan Sun, an O’Rourke Media Group-owned newspaper in central Wisconsin, is on pace to hit hundreds of thousands of monthly page views by this fall. That is a quick turnaround for a website that just re-launched Oct. 1.

The relatively new digital effort already has a loyal following from readers who consume up to seven pages per visit. The simple key to gaining traffic so quickly in a local market: give the audience what they want, according to David Arkin, O’Rourke’s chief content and product officer.

“One of the things we talk a lot about is writing for the reader and with every story thinking about the information we have and how best to help the reader digest it,” Arkin said. “The Sun has done a great job using the right story format and digital tool with really everything it creates and the audience has rewarded them for it. They simply have made it easy for the reader to get what they’re after.”

That includes click-worthy headlines and plenty of local visuals. In fact, gallery traffic accounts for 25% to 35% of all O’Rourke online traffic, according to Arkin. For example, The Sheboygan Sun sports coverage includes extensive slideshows — featuring dozens of photos — associated with short stories instead of long game recaps.

“That sports coverage was especially vital during COVID when no spectators were allowed to go to the games,” Arkin said. “That content honestly became really important to people.”

News audiences have also gravitated toward “community resource journalism,” he said, with a focus on quality-of-life resources. The Sheboygan Sun digital reporter often broadcasts from the field using Facebook Live in a manner similar to TV reporters. The live coverage ranges from breaking news to conversations with local business owners.

“Being new to many readers in the market, it was important to create a personality and face with what we were doing, and Tara Jones’ [the reporter] presence on social media really helped us do that,” Arkin said. “We really tried to take the audience with us, and I think it worked.”

3. Make newcomers feel welcomed to town

Since launching in spring 2019, newsletter-first news outlet Raleigh Convergence regularly covered the rapid growth in and surrounding its North Carolina community. One year into the operation, Editor/Publisher Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen expanded that coverage using a community network grant from The Lenfest Institute and Facebook Journalism Project to start the New Neighbors Project.

The newcomers guide welcomes new Wake County residents by emailing a four-part guide to subscribers, who also can join a Facebook Group exclusive to their community. Each section is unique: 1) an overview of iconic or must-do experiences in their community, 2) community/neighborhood history, 3) how to get involved locally, and 4) a self-guided tour.

The content is localized to Raleigh as well as the surrounding areas of Southeast Raleigh, Knightdale and Cary. Owen Wiskirchen said each location was chosen intentionally to target rapidly growing historic neighborhoods.

Raleigh Convergence also hosted events to bring members together, at first in person with scavenger hunts and trivia nights. That event was eventually hosted virtually during the pandemic, and scavenger hunts were converted into socially distanced activities.

Grant-funded local “ambassadors” co-hosted the events and helped facilitate the conversation — creating content for the New Neighbors Project newsletter in the process.

“I largely let each ambassador determine how they would interpret that general theme,” Owen Wiskirchen said. “The self-guided tour is repurposed content from the socially distant scavenger hunt events in each community.”