2021 was the Detroit Free Press’ first full year employing a digital subscription model with a “north star” goal of growing digital subscribers. From an audience development perspective, this meant shifting our focus to thinking about audience in a “funnel”: How do we take those occasional users at the top of the funnel and get them to become habitual visitors and eventually paying loyalists? One critical way we did that is by rethinking what success looks like and measuring real-world impact from our work as journalists, and showing readers how their investment plays a role.
We are especially proud of our September 2021 enterprise project on COVID-19 vaccines: a series of stories and social cards that explained the vaccines and how they work, answered readers’ concerns carefully with nonjudgmental language, and called for a “benevolent conspiracy” of the vaccinated to help the unvaccinated get shots. We published an 11-page special section in the Sunday Free Press on Sept. 19 and distributed thousands of free copies throughout metro Detroit. We gained dozens of subscribers from this effort alone and received national attention, including from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who featured it on her show. More importantly, though, it made readers feel more empowered to make healthy decisions, changed opinions on the vaccine, convinced at least dozens to get vaccinated and gave thousands the information they needed to persuade others to do so.
Social media engagement played a critical role in this project. We knew we had an opportunity to not only spread our coverage well beyond Detroit, but to engage with readers and address their concerns in an empathetic, inclusive manner. First, we asked our followers in an Instagram Story and a Twitter thread on Sept. 14 what they were hearing from loved ones about why they weren’t getting vaccinated, and asked how we could help. We received more than 150 responses. We took the most common concerns we heard – from “I don’t need it” to “I heard frightening stories” to “I’m worried it’ll impact my pregnancy or fertility” – and turned them into shareable social cards for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, complete with research-backed answers that addressed those concerns and alt-text for accessibility. We not only re-shared those cards in Instagram Stories and Facebook Stories for extra visibility, but also reached out to every person who responded and shared a link to our vaccine Q&A, which was updated to reflect their concern (including our response).
The Online Journalism Awards™ (OJAs), launched in May 2000, are the only comprehensive set of journalism prizes honoring excellence in digital journalism around the world.