Making environmental issues relevant to the public means more than reporting for activists, scientists, regulators, industry types and others who are already engaged in them.
If you’re serious about covering the environment, you need to find the environmental angle to everything you report. That’s surprisingly easy. But lately I’ve been thinking of a corollary: Find the non-environmental angle in every environmental story.
That has implications for story construction but perhaps even more so for story marketing. Here’s what I mean:
When we’ve done similar things, the Echo online version typically drew much more traffic than the WKAR web version. That makes sense. Echo has an established Great Lakes environmental niche. WKAR’s audience is broader in interest and narrower in geography. Much of its audience is tied to mid-Michigan.
That’s fine. WKAR’s web presence is a bonus. Our main interest is engaging the station’s broadcast audience — listeners whom we may not otherwise reach.
But this time the WKAR web version of the story outdrew the Echo version. By a lot. In fact, the story is by far the most trafficked story on the WKAR site.
Our Echo numbers? Just OK.
I was confused. WKAR had tapped a new audience, one that we didn’t have here at Echo and one that the radio station didn’t have previously on its website. It’s a mystery worth pondering because it has implications for engaging new audience at Echo.
The story explores how early explorers praised Detroit as a watery paradise. But since then the city has lost streams, lakes and wetlands to urban development. The water is channeled under pavement and buildings and through sewer pipes.
Nowadays there is a push in Detroit and other cities to “daylight” some of these ghost waterways. One is in Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery where a partially buried stream is named Bloody Run Creek because of a mid 18th century battle between Chief Pontiac and British troops. Legend is that Pontiac won and the blood of the British ran red in the creek.
Neat story — except for the British.
But what made that WKAR link so much hotter than the one on Echo?
Emanuele Berry, who produced the segment, discovered that a link to the WKAR web version had been posted to Historic Detroit’s Facebook page. Twenty-seven people shared it from there. And then who knew how they passed it around.
Obviously the references to early Detroit and that Bloody Run Creek battle were of interest to Detroit history buffs. They may or may not be interested in the environment. Regardless, it was the local history angle that encouraged them to hear an environmental news story that otherwise they may never have known existed.
It’s a good lesson when considering how to construct an environmental story for broad appeal. But it’s probably an even better lesson for targeting social media marketing. The story’s focus didn’t need to be changed. All that was needed was to highlight an angle relevant to another audience that was not particularly oriented to the environment.
We marketed our version to the usual suspects — our Facebook and Twitter followers, environmental organizations, water researchers, government regulators. It didn’t occur to us to tap into the history folks. Nor apparently did it occur to regular Echo readers.
It’s not that we don’t like loyal readers and listeners who already understand the significance of the Great Lakes environment. We need you. It is important that we serve you.
But journalists also need to be sensitive to opportunities to engage people who are not engaged. Otherwise we’re just exchanging information within a community that already gets it.
If we want impact, we need to grow audience. And that is the challenge of the online technology that allows us to gravitate to areas that reinforce our interests instead of expanding them.
A version of this column appears on the website of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.