Even after the pandemic brought a boom in readers seeking reliable information on the health crisis, how can news outlets keep audiences engaged? According to editors from India, the U.S., Austria, and the Philippines speaking at the IPI World Congress panel on audience engagement on September 17, top editors agreed keeping an audience is, in fact, more important than growing it. 

“There is so much attention on growing audiences”, Supriya Sharma, executive editor of Scroll.in, a leading Indian digital news site founded in 2014. “But the question should be: how do you create a community that serves the needs of your regular readers, so that they want to pay for news?”

The answer lies in providing high-quality, consistent and reliable news. “What distinguishes us from other media in India is not our format, but our independence”, Sharma said. As a new news outlet, the company is still building an audience, guided by what Sharma calls her “three Cs” : credibility, consistency and creativity. “Credibility, since readers come to you for being an independent newsroom without propaganda and spin. Consistency, meaning that even if you have a small newsroom, you need to choose what stories matter to you. And lastly creativity, since even your most loyal readers that love you to bits will not stay if you produce the same stories every time.”

However, creativity does not mean that news outlets should jump on every new social media platform to engage new readers, Amanda Barrett, deputy managing editor at the Associated Press emphasized. “We are a legacy news organization, and we should make serious choices. This is why TikTok is not on the menu for us, for example”, she said. For Barrett, keeping audiences is fundamental to growing. “In our consumer world, we try to funnel people through newsletters and have audiences spend time at our website, and let them come back.”

“Most of all, our news should be reliable”, Naomi Hunt, head of transformation at the Austrian private broadcaster PULS 4, said. “People look for information they can count on. This is how you can grow your audience, since every single audience is a potential multiplier.” However, building a reliable news brand does come with responsibilities, especially when educating younger audiences on media literacy, she argued. “Especially the younger generation uses Facebook for their news consumption. We need to teach them that there’s a difference between high-quality journalism and what they find on social media.”

PumaPodcast founder Roby Alampay, who moderated the conversation, asked whether better journalism automatically attracts bigger audiences. For AP’s Barrett, being better means “highlighting the voices of people which have not always been heard, and showing different kinds of perspectives”, she explained. “This is appealing to people who haven’t seen themselves in the media before. So in this way, you can attract new people to your outlet.”

Alampay himself said that podcasts can build reliable audiences by offering in-depth content. “Recently, we did a 6-episode series on the war on drugs by Duterte”, he said. “When listening to the podcast, people already know the numbers of this war, they know that many people died. There, we cannot offer anything new. But the biggest advantage of audio is that it offers the experience of reflecting together on the situation. When people love this, they will introduce the podcast to friends and family, but this takes time and demands consistency.”

Alampay explained that PumaPodcast benefited from the pandemic news boom, growing from 500 listeners to 50,000 streams last month. Yet, despite its recent success, PumaPodcast mostly funds itself by revenue from client services, such as developing commercial podcasts for businesses.

Reflecting on Alampay’s question, Scroll.in’s Sharma stressed the importance of translating new audiences into revenue. “That could be via a subscription fee, but in our new outlet, we have seen that readers give more when contributing than when asking for a small subscription. Readers want to pay for journalism they value. By being consistent and by focusing on the stories that mainstream media in India do not cover, we build an engaged audience.”