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Growing audiences–and your media business–through diversity

May 30, 2023 | By Rumyana Nikolova, Manager – FT Strategies@FtStrategies

Is our organization serving the right audiences to expand the reach and impact of our journalism? Are we fulfilling our social mission to inform the public and represent the variety of viewpoints of our society? Are we relying too heavily on one type of reader to sustain us financially in the future?

Those are some of the questions that dominated the discussions over the course of FT Strategies and Google News Initiative’s Audience Diversity Academy. In this inaugural six-month programme, six publishers across Europe came together to better understand and address the needs and behaviors of younger and women audiences. This article summarizes our approach and subsequent report, Seizing the diversity opportunity: enabling growth in the news business.  Here, I will focus on strategic guidance, and you can read the full report for  case studies, practical experiments and more.

Why should I care, you ask? 

Besides being preoccupied with questions similar to our participants’, the social turmoil that rippled from societal uprisings across newsrooms in the U.S. continues to cause further pressure. Heavily influenced by uprisings following the #MeToo movement and murder of George Floyd, America’s media organizations are reckoning with the lack of diversity internally and in their coverage. There’s significant room for improvement to be sure: for example just one woman’s voice exists to every 1.7 male voice in stories and the 21% of women of color in the population is reflected by just 3% of editors in politics. 

For the skeptics out there, addressing such organizational and coverage disparities can lead to commercial upsides, among other things. Growing diverse audiences and ensuring a more diverse organization can help your company respond to changing consumer behaviors and economic headwinds. It can also help organizations proactively gain a foothold in the increasingly aggressive battle for talent.

So how can I seize the opportunity of audience diversity?

Our framework below was crucial to building an audience diversity strategy for the participants:

Start with a clear case and diversity goal, backed up by leadership

There are many aspects to consider when baking audience diversity into your strategy. However, a few influential leaders working with a group of highly engaged employees, who strongly identify with the mission, is a great place to start. This means ensuring enough traction at the top to prioritize audience diversity and communicate across the business, while the grassroots can generate practical ideas and excite colleagues. The publishers who moved ahead quicker are those who created a clear goal with hypotheses to test, measuring their progress with defined metrics.

Create regular, authentic mechanisms to listen to your audience and act on their feedback

Journalism is no longer a monologue; the more you invite the underrepresented segments to be part of a conversation, the more heard they feel and the better you understand their needs. Go beyond ad-hoc feedback such as with regular initiatives to collect qualitative and quantitative information such as interviews, surveys, newsroom tours, video calls, website analytics. Make sure you can include audience suggestions on the content and product in your strategic activities in order to create a more diverse proposition. At the FT we have an Audience Engagement team that advocates for high quality, diverse readers.

Sustain the effort to connect to an audience with content for them, experienced in ways that suit their needs

While it is important to avoid negative media stereotyping, underrepresented segments should have access to authentic, equitable and representative content. Having the data in the newsroom to track coverage across communities, how they engage with the stories and the amount of voices, images and sources included can shine light on the limitations of existing content and encourage more diverse commissioning decisions. 

This partly lies with the newsroom. But marketing, product and data should work in cross-departmental teams to ensure there is a variety of tactics to acquire and retain audiences. For example, we found that women are often confined by time, so offering them alternative methods of consumption, such as audio or newsletters, strengthens their engagement with the product.

Reflect the society you serve in your organizational make-up–but look beyond hiring

It is challenging to create a diverse product without a diverse employee base to weave their ideas in stories, design, production and delivery. However, we found that publishers look at their employee data split by (e.g.) gender and tend to conclude they are 50:50. Certainly, you should recognize this achievement. However, it is also critical to examine how employees from minority groups feel at the workplace, how many progress upwards, and what their tenure is, in order to measure your ability to both acquire and empower talent. We experimented with a group of women writing on rotation a newsletter on topics that matter for women. The results showed better individual recognition and a higher uptake of the newsletter by women readers.

I want to note that we cannot reduce diversity to simply age and gender, and diversity is the first step in a long journey towards a more inclusive and equitable audience and organization. However, for the purpose of the programme, we focused on age and gender to make our efforts most impactful. We believe that the approach and the learnings are applicable to other diversity aspects.

Diversity is not simply about representation in the newsroom, or in the content we produce. It serves our readers by better reflecting society. And it serves our business by attracting a broad talent pool, and better meeting the expectations of our audiences. 

About the author

Rumyana is a manager at FT Strategies, and has worked with large media & publishing companies across Europe. She led FT the Google News Initiative Audience diversity programme, and also has experience in content strategy and engagement tactics. She was recently part of the Financial Times’ Audience Engagement team supporting their audience diversity initiatives. Prior to joining the FT, Rumyana was a consultant at KPMG.

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