The BirdDog experiment: results, lessons and what’s next

I’m wildly proud of this experiment. I hope you learned as much as I have.

 Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I didn’t launch BirdDog to explore my commitment to journalism — that runs deep and strong.

I launched it to see what I could learn; to see if there is an audience for something other than the glibly clickable but unmemorable pieces that I call “man chases raccoon” stories.

The data from the email campaigns, web traffic and unscientific reader survey support my hypothesis: People will show up and stay for quality, what I initially described as “slow news” that didn’t chase the news cycle.

Peek behind the curtain at the results, engagement and why it attracted readers:
  • Nearly 40 percent of people people who found BirdDog learned about it from someone. 
  • Email open rates consistently topped 30 percent and many emails eventually got close to 40 percent. That’s an enviable open rate.
  • Open rates did not dilute as the email list grew. 
  • In six months BirdDog, across all platforms, established a reader base of more than 1,600 with $20 spent on social marketing.
  • While email click rates were strong, I did not treat them as one of my key measures because the whole Weekender was placed in the email. Click rates varied based on how many original BirdDog pieces were in The Weekender, so there was no consistent benchmark.
  • You didn’t know it, but each week I thought about the order of The Weekender blurbs to test how far readers went in the email. And based on click rates, many, if not most of email readers, reached all the way to the bottom.
  • Every week a portion of you prefered to click over to read The Weekender in a browser. Why, when it’s in your email!?! Whatever floats your boat, fine, but seriously — why?
  • From launch, had 6,500 users and had reached a point when weekday traffic was impressively steady in-between Sunday publishings. I tried ads early on but placement was odd and I earned about $0.25 or so in a couple of months. It definitely wasn’t worth the eyesore.
  • Of the survey respondents, 3.9 percent said they were satisfied with the journalism options in Tennessee. 50 percent said they were not, and 46.1 percent said “somewhat.” 
  • A selection of comments from respondents about why they read BirdDog or are looking for something new given the dissatisfaction with choices:

“I love it. Reporting is in-depth and has a ‘local’ flare. I live in rural Tennessee about 65 miles from Nashville. We are loosing [sic] our local newspapers and radio.”

“Local journalism has changed in past decades. Too few reporters working on too many stories result i [sic] less depth and research.”

“I can tell we are missing serious stories that impact our daily lives here in Murfreesboro. I can’t imagine smaller towns are getting good info about their government and how businesses are behaving.”

“There is not enough in depth information about important topics. Most local news is either ‘if it bleeds it leads’ or short sound bites.”

“Well written and in depth articles don’t exist locally.”

“I try to stay current on state-wide events. There is good info available on Middle and West Tennessee; east Tn seems to be limited to UT info.”

“I like that I see information that I might not otherwise. I am not always sure of whom the audience should be: is it directed at business persons or the general public/consumers. I would like more *action* information, I see the information, now, what do I do about it?”

“I think my local bar is pretty low. It seems to be pretty generic. I read local press when there is an issue that I am interested in (healthcare, education, transit). I also skim local press for business development since I need to reach out to other businesses.”

“So much of what effects a community happens b/c of local-not national-decisions. Many would think otherwise. readBirdDog understands this.”

“I’d like to see more and better print reporting on local government and the local effects of macroeconomic trends.”

  • The BirdDog audience reads a variety of national and international publications in addition to most local media and nearly any healthcare publication you can name
  • 14 percent of survey respondents said they don’t pay for what they read. A handful rely on their employer to pick up the tab.
  • Roughly two-thirds of respondents were mostly open to the idea of paying something for BirdDog. Twenty-one percent said it was too early to tell, and 12 percent wouldn’t pay or didn’t respond.

The reader survey and exploring engagement were perhaps my favorite parts of BirdDog. The reporting, at some point, became a means to that information. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know what makes you want to read.

I was impressed by the amount of time that readers spent, on average 6-and-a-half minutes, per SurveyMonkey, to type thoughtful and honest answers.

Granted, BirdDog was designed as a hybrid “ideas” trade publication — not a general news outlet — the fact that a WordPress-based, one-woman experiment was able to quickly find traction and an engaged audience underscores the deep-seeded exasperation and discontent that Tennesseans have with the reporting and writing on issues that unfold around them.

Time flew by

The reporting and research I put into writing a single piece is immense. I squirrel away bits of information and random interviews until an ‘aha’ moment fuses them together in my head.

Anyone who’s wondered for months on end if their interview _would ever_ find its way into pixels on a screen should know that sometimes it took awhile for pieces to slip into place.

It’s what I enjoy: the constant reading, writing and thinking about ‘what is this’ and ‘why is it important.’

I love connecting random dots and getting to ask all manner of questions of people with a miscellany of expertise. That’s a conundrum since it can be ages before a piece takes shape — even by my timeline — and there’s not a great place for that in present-day journalism.

In the case of BirdDog, it was me trying to research, report, write, and then compile, and sometimes report for context in The Weekender. Then put it all together.  It took a ton of time. I worked 10 to 12-hour Saturdays and generally tried to only respond to some emails on Sunday. It’s been a six-day-a-week experiment for six months.

BirdDog initially launched with the plan to publish three times (!!) a week. Good intentions swiftly met the real world.

Yet even with one email, I felt harried to just get it out because meetings, interviews and research ate up time during the week so I was left scrambling and questioning the quality as Saturday ticked into Sunday.

Publishing requires a level of consistency to keep and build an audience — not to mention funding to sustain the writer(s). There are many other newsletters penned by one person popping up around the country and I’ll be curious to watch how the trend advances.

Simply put, it takes scale.

What’s next? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

I won’t soon forget the specific blend of excitement and fear I felt pushing send on March 21. There were so many unknowns, but it quickly took shape and found a ready audience. That was delightful.

As is the case with an evolving project, each week was brand new. My thinking about it evolved, too.

BirdDog wasn’t monetized in anyway, although that had been one potential definition of success. Ultimately, I preferred the flexibility of a free experiment so I could wrestle sans obligation with what it was.

In the last six weeks — which in BirdDog time is an eon — I simultaneously realized I no longer saw a path toward sustainability and began to get excited about the possibility of trying something new.

The solo time working on BirdDog and its design, helped remind me of my core passions for infrastructure, strategy, finance, the economy, innovation and the cultural identities that shape senses of belonging.

In essence, those are the underpinnings of what moves and grows societies. It’s also the framework I’ve applied to health care reporting.

Before starting on the beat in December 2014, I transitioned my power and renewables Twitter feed with a tweet storm about how I was thinking about my new health care beat as a utility or infrastructure of a community.

At this juncture, I may try the side where decisions get made. I don’t quite know what that path looks like, but I suspect it will be interesting — and have me writing something, somewhere.

Most immediately, there’s a pilot on LinkedIn that’s slated to kick off on Oct. 15. There’s a pretty good chance you’ll find me there. (This site/archive will stay live until at least March)

Thank you for being a part of the BirdDog experiment — I’m wildly proud of it. I hope you learned as much as I did.


p.s. This quote from André Gide reminded me innumerable times of why I decided to spend 2018 on an experiment.

“One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” – André Gide


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