The ‘addict’ audience

Journalism / Article

Knight Foundation recently released the report “Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability,” which examined the operations of 18 nonprofit news organizations. Anne Galloway is editor and co-publisher of VTDigger.org, one of the nonprofits. Below, she writes about developing an audience. Photo credit: Morgan Brown.

When I started VTDigger in 2009, I had the moral support of a few friends, no money and a simple idea: Would readers be interested in iterative, hard news reporting about state government and public policy issues? 

I didn’t know the answer to that question in January 2010 when I began covering the Vermont Statehouse. But I had a burning curiosity about how the Legislature and the governor’s office really worked.

At the time, VTDigger had existed about four months. The Vermont Community Foundation had given us a small startup grant, and I had hired several freelancers. We published in-depth explanatory stories several times a week.

In December 2009 our readership was in the high dozens. 

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So much for build it, and they’ll come, I thought. Clearly, the site wasn’t useful enough for readers. Maybe we were a little too niche. I began to believe the only way to develop a readership and attract funding from members, business underwriters and foundations was to offer daily content, along with in-depth reports. But how could I do that with no money to pay staff? 

I developed a formula that continues to work for us today (though now, thank goodness, we have staff). I began posting daily stories about the inner workings of the Legislature and state agencies; commentaries from readers; comments on stories as long as readers gave their first and last names; press releases; and original source materials—PDFs of spreadsheets, memos, legal documents and video clips of press conferences.

As my first reporter put it, this formula allowed VTDigger to “play a news organization on the Web.” We were able to publish 10 to 12 posts a day with a skeleton crew. It also gave us an immediate feedback loop with readers. They complain, offer advice, propose corrections. We listen and respond. 

The formula helped nudge things along, but it was the reporting that mattered most. I decided to go to school on state government and so I covered the House Appropriations Committee. Lawmakers demanded that each commissioner and secretary in state government report out on successes and failures and explain whether taxpayers were getting their money’s worth. I learned about every department and agency in state government. It turned out to be the perfect grounding for VTDigger. 

I published story after story about the inner workings of state government through the lens of expenditures and then took on other topics, including electoral politics, the energy industry and health care reform. We developed a reputation for going deep on issues that mattered.

Inadvertently, I began tapping an “addict” audience of government geeks. VTDigger’s readership grew from the high dozens to 1,500 in January 2010. By May we had 14,000 unique readers per month. That summer, I covered the open gubernatorial race. By the time the general election rolled around that fall our readership had doubled. 

As our readership grew, we attracted funders, business supporters and members. The Vermont Journalism Trust merged with us in March 2011, and we garnered more support from local philanthropists and businesses. We invested in a business manager, an underwriting sales director, a reporter and a Web developer later that year. 

Over time, we committed our resources to watchdog beat reporting. We have four full-time reporters who cover health care, energy, politics, education, the environment, human services, business and the economy. During the 2013 legislative session, we had more reporters in the Vermont Statehouse than any other news outlet.

Readers have responded in kind. We now have 95,000-plus unique readers each month, and a large majority are loyal. Our recent survey shows that 63 percent visit the site at least once a day, and 75 percent have been following VTDigger for at least a year. 

I believe this is because of the way we keep tabs on public officials. When we write stories about issues that affect readers’ lives directly, readers react by pressuring politicians to put the public’s interests first. VTDigger readers aren’t just addicted to our stories, they’re addicted to civic engagement and making Vermont a better place to live, work and raise a family.

Below: VTDigger.org’s Expenditures 2010 vs. 2012