How The Philadelphia Inquirer is Building an Audience-First Newsroom

The Philadelphia Inquirer gave Kim Fox a big job: help transform it into an audience-first news organization.

Sure, lots of newspapers advertise themselves as community focused, but for the Inquirer it has to be more than a marketing tactic — it’s a public-benefit corporation owned by a nonprofit dedicated to “preserving local journalism.” Community engagement is its official mandate.

Serving a city of nearly 1.6 million but lacking the resources of an international news organization, the Inquirer has had to be tactical in its approach. Its success, so far, has come from focusing on a few community news fundamentals and putting a new kind of editor in the newsroom.

Fox, the Managing Editor of Audience and Innovation, saw big challenges in connecting with readers when she arrived in 2016 from Bloomberg.

Just one example: reporters were being doxxed by trolls in a comment section so toxic, the mayor had publicly called it out. That problem was solved with investment in Viafoura’s moderation and engagement tools. It was one step of many in a longer-term challenge: the paper’s 240 journalists needed to make community engagement part of their day-to-day.

The fact that “editor” is in Fox’s job title shows how the Inquirer decided to approach this: as something championed by journalists rather than imposed on them from the business side or the organization. “There was some debate whether this kind of job should live with the product team or in the Inquirer’s newsroom,” says Fox. “The newsroom was the right place to make sure journalists bought in.”

Armed With Information

To help reporters adopt the tools of audience engagement and keep this change rooted in editorial, Fox created three editor positions overseeing SEO, newsletters and analytics. She describes them as coaches and advocates for their respective engagement tools, but says they are primarily there to help make stories better, discoverable and more relevant to the community.

“I like to say we’re data informed, not data led,” Fox says. Their approach is more than just seeing what stories are most-read and doing more of the same. They try to contextualize audience data, including from their moderation and engagement tool, to find opportunities for new products and services.

The Inquirer’s new Curious Philly sub-brand is showing early promise on this front. It lets residents ask questions about the city through an automated online audience platform. Asking about a city’s curiosities is a familiar concept to anyone in local news, but Fox sees it as the first step in making the Inquirer the “listening post of Philadelphia.”

“I like to say we’re data informed — not data led.”

Kim FoxManaging Editor of Audience and Innovation, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“We’ve been really successful with Curious Philly, getting more than 2,000 questions in the last six months,” she says. And while there are plenty of questions about local quirks (“What happened to the Hunting Park carousel?”), it’s starting to encompass broader, complicated issues (“I feel like the rest of the country’s economy is recovering and Philadelphia’s isn’t”).

“Think of that as 2,000 story assignments directly from the community,” Fox says. They tend to outperform other news items in terms of pageviews in part because they remain relevant longer than a typical news hit.

“We’re able to bring them back for recirculation on our site and promotion on social over a longer period of time, and some have been able to get a steady drip of evergreen search referral.”

The Ongoing Conversation

The success of Curious Philly drove more community outreach through a handful of workshops wherein Fox’s team connected with diverse groups of non-subscribers. Those sessions spawned We The People, another online sub-brand that profiles interesting, everyday individuals around the city. It also performs well from a traffic perspective and earned its reporter, Stephanie Farr, a Keystone Press Award in April.

The focus on community engagement is paying off. Online subscriptions have grown past benchmarks during Fox’s tenure, and she says the Inquirer has “some of the top retention rates for the industry at the metro level,” though she’s keeping exact figures close to her chest.

“At the end of the day, I want to tell readers, ‘We’ve got your back,’” Fox says. “Whether that’s with city hall, or figuring out where to buy your next house. That’s our service.”

Read more about how media companies can drive retention, loyalty and trust in our guide.

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