How to Build an Audience as the Media Crumbles

Editorial judgment, rather than algorithmic whim, is key

An illustration of a bear squinting at a smartphone while sitting on deflated tent marked News

On May 17, the Whitehorse Daily Star—one of Canada’s last independent newspapers, having “dawned in 1899 as a tent,” according to its editor—ended a 124-year run. For contributing writer Rhiannon Russell, who covered the Star’s final edition in a story for our website, its demise was only a matter of time. “[N]ewspapers aren’t a viable business anymore,” she explains. “Canadians increasingly get their news online, and advertiser dollars have followed suit.”

The mourning touched off by the announcement of the Star’s closure was a reminder that the Northern outlet, which had housed its own printing press, was more than another failed business. A shuttered newsroom, Russell writes, is a civic catastrophe, resulting in “institutions not being held to account and important stories going uncovered.” For those of us lucky enough to still be in the game—still publishing journalism, still fighting to outrun changing habits and technology—such closures make it more urgent we get it right.

Part of getting it right means sharing any morsel of good news. As it happens, we have some: more of you are reading us than ever before. Over the past year, we launched a contributing writer program, setting up regional desks covering Quebec and the North and thematic desks covering arts and culture, Indigenous issues, and climate change. We also zealously doubled down on politics, investigative features, and timely international stories, with an emphasis on Afghanistan and India. The dividends on this strategy have been dramatic: the sharpest rise in website traffic and reader engagement since The Walrus began logging such metrics in 2009.

But our real focus isn’t building up numbers. It’s building an audience. We want The Walrus to be a national watchdog, a mirror, and a forum. And that requires a lasting relationship not with single views or fleeting impressions but with humans. Editorial judgment, rather than algorithmic whim, is core to that approach. As Jacob Donnelly recently wrote in a newsletter for A Media Operator, publishers need to start treating people who decide to spend time on their sites “with a bit more care.” That means seeing audiences not as one half of a commercial exchange but as attention that deserves to be rewarded.

And what do readers seem to want? Good writing on issues they worry about: cost of living, housing, misinformation. They want to understand events happening in other regions of the country, and the world. They like seeing us take chances on stories because we think they’re worth telling, even if they won’t necessarily go viral. And they’re excited by us taking that extra step: not simply reporting the news but making sense of it.

In media, time isn’t on anybody’s side. The rise of AI-generated search—which will reduce the need for users to click through to websites, further eating away at advertising revenue—may only hasten the inevitable. But we’re not helpless either. As one of the few publications in Canada that doesn’t have a paywall, we’re proving good journalism can win, especially if you think about your readers first.

Carmine Starnino
Carmine Starnino (@cstarnino) is editor-in-chief of The Walrus.