Three big ideas to make the most of reader interest

The Case

Montana Free Press has a clear mission: Produce in-depth public-service journalism that creates positive change and helps move society toward justice and equity. We look at one of their most successful projects to date, a three-part series on regenerative agriculture, that helped them achieve this goal — while also bringing in significant reader donations.

The Stats

Site traffic: 29,000 total visitors to Common Ground, Part I
New visitors: 22,500 of the total visitors were new to the site
Time on page: 48% longer than average

The Backstory

Depending on where you live, a story about regenerative agriculture may not seem like must-read journalism. But in Montana, home to the independent and nonprofit Montana Free Press, agriculture is a big deal. 

So when a freelance writer named Emily Stifler Wolfe pitched reporting on the state’s responses to soil degradation in the age of climate change to Montana Free Press editor-in-chief John S. Adams, he agreed.


“So much of our reporting is really generated from the bottom up,” Adams explained. Story ideas often come from people in the community or reporters themselves. In this case, Wolfe proposed a series around regenerative agriculture — a topic “she was passionate about and very interested in.” Adams knew it was a winning pitch, as agriculture is a huge part of Montana’s economy and residents are “acutely aware of the impacts of climate change.”

Since coming up with the idea for Montana Free Press in 2015, launching as a nonprofit in 2016, and relaunching in late 2017, Adams has experienced his fair share of starts and stops. In that time, he’s learned how important it is to take advantage of reader interest and fundraising momentum when opportunities arise. Since joining the Newspack platform in early 2020, Adams said that it’s been much easier to make the most of those moments.

Wolfe’s series, called “Common Ground,” provided one of those valuable opportunities. 

Adams knew that such an ambitious series — one that required traveling all over Montana — would cost a significant amount of time and money. He reached out to the Solutions Journalism Network to help fund the project and help the newsroom learn from it. And after the first Common Ground story was published, in July 2021, they were able to solicit both donations and feedback from readers, which helped fund and shape the remainder of the series.

The Takeaways

How did they do it? Adams shared three big takeaways from Common Ground.

  1. Every story is a fundraising opportunity.

While Adams secured $5,000 from the Solutions Journalism Network, he knew that wouldn’t cover the cost of the regenerative agriculture series. “We didn’t have enough money in our freelance budget — or we would have blown through our entire freelance budget — to do this series,” he said. “We needed to raise some additional funds.”

So Adams and his team launched a crowdfunding effort around Common Ground. Once Part I of the series was published, they asked readers for their support in funding Parts II and III. They sent one fundraising email and used Newspack’s Campaigns feature, which allows publishers to build targeted calls-to-action on stories.

Specifically, the calls-to-action on Part I of the Common Ground series paid off. Adams set a goal of receiving $2,500 in reader donations, and wound up raising $4,046. That was matched by local donors to raise more than $8,000 to support the series.

  1. Reader feedback is invaluable.

Thanks to a boost from places such as Hacker News, the Common Ground stories received significant traffic. The first story in the series received 29,000 total visitors, 22,500 of them new to MTFP, who collectively spent 48% more time on page than is typical for the site.

“These lengthy, in-depth stories on farming practices, of all things, brought in significant readership,” Adams said. And those readers “were staying on the page, reading the entire articles.”

Adams and team took advantage of that dedicated readership by asking for feedback. At the bottom of each Common Ground story they embedded a short survey with transparent and straightforward language: 

“Montana Free Press and the Solutions Journalism Network invested significant resources to produce this series of stories. Knowing how it may have influenced you can help steer future reporting that provides value to readers.”

So far, they’ve received 850 end-of-article survey responses, with 61% of readers expressing interest in a limited-newsletter series on the subject of regenerative agriculture. 

“That’s something we’re looking into now,” said Adams. “Once we’re done with this series, how do we break it down or expand on it in newsletter format?”

The newsroom has also shared its findings with Solutions Journalism Network, which will help the organization explore similar reporting opportunities. Finally, they included survey findings in their 2020-2021 Growth & Gratitude Report, a way of demonstrating the site’s growth and impact.

  1. Details matter.

When Adams joined Newspack, he also launched a rebranded site.

“We wanted a fresh look,” Adams said — something that honored their “bootstrap, startup, scrappy” roots, but was also sleek and professional. Most of all, they wanted a top-notch experience for readers.

“Whether you are coming from mobile, tablet, desktop, whatever, we wanted it to be a really friendly user-experience,” Adams explained. “If you’re going to sit there and read a 2,000-word story on your cell phone, we didn’t want it to kill you.”

In particular, Adams is proud of how they used the design tools built into Newspack for Common Ground. Part I of the series, which totals more than 4,000 words, makes good use of features like pull quotes over images and a magazine presentation for the featured image and headline.

“One of the things I’ve learned about design over this process is that the little tiny details — and the attention to those details — are what set really good websites apart from mediocre websites,” he said. Even things as small as choosing a gradient overlay that doesn’t detract from the photo but highlights the text, he added. 

Little touches like pull quotes, feature images, and caption overlays are things that the small but mighty MTFP team didn’t have the capacity to do before joining Newspack.

“The Newspack team helps us achieve the design and functionality goals that we have for our users,” Adams said. “I think that is what sets us apart from all the competition in Montana.”