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In efforts to build community between reporters and audiences, and add value to their subscription offerings, many news companies are now turning to a time-tested method of institutional outreach. Along with podcasts, newsletters, and live events, these journalistic outlets have added conference calls to their arsenal of ways to break down barriers between creators and consumers of news.  

Kyle Pope, editor in chief of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), and host of the two conference calls his organization has run in 2018, sees them as connecting people who all play for the same team. “[CJR] sort of viewed this as, ‘This is a tribe that you think is important. The tribe of journalism, and we want to make you feel good for joining in.”

And while CJR’s calls were influenced by those conducted at another journalistic niche organization—Silicon Valley’s The Information (a tech-centric news outlet whose founder, Jessica Lessin, is a CJR board member)—big outlets have also been employing conferences calls recently. The New York Times, for instance, has arranged 18 calls, ranging in topic from the American opioid crisis to NAFTA renegotiations, to Game of Thrones. The Atlantic has an extensive list of calls it has hosted, too.

Also inspired by The Information is Toronto’s The Logic, an “innovation economy” publication founded in early 2018. At an October Canadian Journalism Foundation event held in Toronto, The Logic’s CEO David Skok said the calls were a great way to form ties between readers and journalists while adding value to the subscription model.

Senior manager of events marketing at The Times Beth Weinstein says she sees a subscription to the paper as entering into a global community. “Calls have been a really good way to bring everyone into that community…When we have the Q&A portion, journalists say, ‘Hi, what’s your name, where are you calling from?’ and you can hear people from Singapore, New Zealand, all over Canada, the UK— it’s amazing to see the breadth.” Weinstein adds that the Times’ call lines are typically maxed out, which means hundreds of callers are phoning in to listen and ask questions.

And at the Times and The Atlantic, audio recordings of the calls are posted online, giving conference calls a dual-function, acting as live events for callers and as podcasts for listeners who want to hear what was said. Hosts typically discuss a topic with journalists who’ve reported on the subject of the day, then open up the lines for callers to comment and/or ask questions, not unlike a live panel or Q&A, but far more accessible.

At a time when encouraging people to pay higher rates for their news is a key challenge, the calls are just one more way news outlets can add value to what they offer subscribers.

In early 2018, the Times was nearing 3 million digital-only subscribers, so increasing efforts to attract new customers while keeping old ones made good economic sense. And at places like CJR, which in recent years has scaled back its print edition from bi-monthly to quarterly, the motivation to gain members now has to involve new methods of outreach.

“We had to tweak what you think about when you’re buying [a subscription],” says Pope. To gain members, CJR uses a multi-pronged approach that includes daily emails, hundreds of online stories that don’t go into print, and an active social media presence.

At the Times, Lindsey Wiebe, Canadian audience director, says a third of its audience for calls about this summer’s G7 Summit and recent NAFTA renegotiations came from Canada. “The calls are one way among many of broadening our reach to an international audience…It’s a way of inviting Canadians into our broader coverage, particularly when Canadian interests are more at stake.”

Besides some tech glitches, like reporters in the field using cellphones that have dropped calls (which Weinstein says was fixed by a landline-only policy for its journalists), the calls have gone smoothly.

“We’ve tried many different ways to connect all of our subscribers,” says Weinstein. The Times has tried live chats, Facebook streams and plenty of podcasts, but “there’s something about the intimacy of the voice, something about having readers and journalists actually talking to each other,” that makes the calls so unique, she says. “It’s really amazing to be in the room when the calls are happening…because you can see the reciprocal relationship between journalists and readers.”

As word of the Times’ success with conference calls spreads, expect to see more outlets test the strategy. “The benefit is that it costs basically nothing [to host the calls] and, for the people who participate, they enjoy it,” says Pope.

Although he says CJR sees higher engagement with in-person events, Pope views the conference calls as a viable way to create a community with readers. “The goal of any of this is to make us feel less institutional and more personal. To make it feel more like I’m talking directly to you, and I know what you’re interested in and we care about it, and we care about what you think.”

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