Why Does the River of News Grow Audience? [VIDEO]

Apr 23, 2012

This may be the best, most informative, most inspiring 80 minutes of your day: NPR’s Matt Thompson explains what makes a dynamic public radio news website and what drives audience growth and audience engagement online. Watch the video

This is a presentation Thompson made at the Knight Digital Media Center for the Leadership Summit on the Future of Local News and Public Media.

What is the River of News? Simply put, it’s a way of presenting news in a flow (a “river”) that is in reverse chronological order; the latest stories are at the top, and stories are rarely complete -- they update regularly as there are new developments, so stories begin and “grow” organically as new information becomes available. It’s one of the potential keys to online success for stations.

Want to see the River of News in action?

Did you notice? The websites themselves send a message to their audience: this station is focused on news. The result: impressive growth in audience and engagement.

If you don’t have time to watch all of Matt’s presentation, here are three key takeaways:

  • The stream is what’s important - not the story: on many public radio news websites, stories are treated as complete, finished objects. But, to borrow a core principle of radio, stories should be covered as they develop. If we waited for a story to finish before we reported it on the radio, our listeners would tune somewhere else for news. And because online has a much lower barrier to entry (one person typing on a keyboard and hitting “publish”) it’s even easier to get breaking news to your online audience. That’s a good thing because they have higher expectations of you.
  • Even small newsrooms can generate a stream of news: because we don't have the resources and reporters to devote major effort to each story, we can curate reports from other trusted media and add them to our own. By reporting on the website, and for the audience, your value proposition becomes: follow us to discover how news unfolds.
  • Let the telling fit the story: news can take as much space or as little space as needed because you don't need to build each "story" in the traditional way with all the "baggage" of the standard story for radio. Even the biggest stories can begin with small entries. If you can tweet a major breaking story in 140 characters or less, then your first report on your website can be just as succinct. (Put the urgent news in the headline and “Details to follow” in the body of the story and publish immediately.) You’ll build the story over time, adding new information, and your audience will follow you as the story develops.

The River of News concept isn’t magical: you get success when you devote some time and energy to your site, and you understand that increasing audience and engagement online increases audience loyalty to your station. There’s a ton of useful advice in the presentation, capped off by that special something we like to call The Power of Matt. Check it out.