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How to Attract an Online Audience For Your Investigation

Jessica Plautz of the Investigative News Network offered advice on how to stand out from the internet crowd on the Promoting Your Investigation panel at the 2012 IRE Conference.

Jessica Plautz (@jessicaplautz), Communications & Engagement Manager for the Investigative News Network, offered advice on how to stand out from the internet crowd on the Promoting Your Investigation panel at the 2012 IRE Conference.

At the IRE conference in Boston this year, I joined FRONTLINE’s Nathan Tobey, the Miami Herald‘s Rick Hirsch, and YouTube’s David Gehring on a panel focused on how to get the word out on an investigation, moderated by Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton. For my part of the presentation, I wanted to offer journalists some context for understanding how information spreads on the internet.

It’s now standard to publish investigative journalism online, but journalists can’t expect the quality of their reporting to attract an audience. The sheer quantity of content on the internet, from news to entertainment and everything in between, means most articles will reach relatively few people.

There’s a mathematical relationship – the power law – that roughly describes how content is distributed among internet users, and it’s my feeling that not enough people outside of computer science are aware of it. The power law describes the uneven distribution of internet users among the many available websites. For most journalists and their stories, it’s not pretty.   

On a typical day, sites like Yahoo!  News or CNN receive millions of visitors, while other sites, particularly those at smaller news organizations, receive fewer than a thousand. There are many, many more sites receiving few visitors, than there are sites receiving many. A power law distribution visualizes this:


The power law isn’t unique to the internet, and there are several examples in nature and society that fit the model. This is so fundamental to online communication and information, though, that I’m of the opinion that everyone who posts content online should be familiar with both the term, and what it means to them.

I created the below chart to show how the estimated unique monthly visitors to the top 15 news websites quickly decreases. These are only the top websites; if smaller news outlets continued to the right, the chart would continue a swift descent.

Data source:

So what can a journalist do in the face of the power law? 

Know the Audience

This may sound simple, but it’s also vital to spreading the word about your latest investigation. Sometimes it’s easy to know who is most affected – and therefore hopefully most interested – in a story. An investigation of standardized testing in schools, for example, is important to parents and teachers. But other investigations may not have such an obvious audience.

Ask yourself who is most affected by the story, and start thinking early (much earlier than the publication date) about where that audience is already connected to social networks, online and off.

In addition to focusing on who is impacted by your story, you can also see who is already connected to your organization by using analytics tools like Facebook Insights.

Become a Hub

To be a hub on the internet is to be highly connected to other organizations and individuals. To become a hub, journalists and news organizations have to provide valuable content and build relationships with their audience, both on their own websites and perhaps more importantly on social media websites where we’re all spending an increasing amount of our time.

On the IRE panel, Nathan Tobey of FRONTLINE shared his experience with using online chats to directly connect reporters with the audience. Both Tobey and Rick Hirsch of the Miami Herald cited as a great resource for curating content from your audience and creating a resource that lets them see the activity around a story.

Collaborate with Other Hubs

In the second chart above, Yahoo! News dwarfs the competition. But if the bottom five or six sites joined forces, they’d quickly have a combined reach that matched Yahoo!. The same is true for smaller news organizations. A local news website that averages 5,000 uniques a month can collaborate with a local television station, allowing each to increase their reach. And of course, collaboration doesn’t stop with other organizations. Involve the audience in the story, and create shareable content to motivate people to share the story with their own networks.

I’ve only touched on the math underneath our communication over the internet. For those who are interested, there’s plenty more to learn about the power law and online and offline networks.

My fellow panelists had lots to offer on some of the more practical ways that journalists can reach out on their networks. The audio recording of the panel should be available on the IRE website soon.

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