Beyond Print Toolkit: Audience personas

Creating audience personas enables your newsroom to develop journalism, news products, and messaging tailored to the goals and preferences of your target groups.

By Anita Li

June 27, 2024

A thumbs up with lightning bolts on a red background
beast01 / Shutterstock

Audience personas have become a cornerstone for publishers aiming to connect more intimately with their readers. Gone are the days when news production was a one-size-fits-all affair, with papers printed and marketing teams scrambling to find their audience post-production.

Newsrooms are now at the heart of audience engagement, tasked with the critical role of not only producing journalism, but also understanding and cultivating a loyal readership. Historically, leading publishers like Gannett and The Wall Street Journal have recognized the importance of audience segmentation. Gannett, during its print era, targeted specific demographics such as young families seeking weekend activities, tailoring content to meet their interests. Similarly, the WSJ identified distinct segments within its audience, from avid news enthusiasts to those who valued the prestige of being seen with the publication. The Philadelphia Inquirer focuses on catering to Eagles fans (Go Birds!), showcasing an early understanding that audiences are not a monolith, but instead represent a tapestry of diverse interests and needs.

In today’s fragmented and overwhelming media landscape, news organizations must understand the diverse audience segments that comprise their readership on a deep level. Creating audience (or user) personas enables your newsroom to develop journalism, news products, and messaging tailored to the goals and preferences of your target groups. Meanwhile, your marketing, subscription and advertising teams can use those same insights to target messaging to grow revenue. Although audiences vary widely, personas add essential demographic and psychographic details to key subscriber segments that can help guide better decision-making.

This section of the Toolkit will outline best practices on researching, building and leveraging audience personas to improve subscription or membership acquisition and retention. Key aspects covered include:

  • Conducting Interviews and Surveys with Your Audiences: Learn how to use tools that directly engage with audiences and offer deep insights into their needs, preferences and pain points, which are crucial for building accurate and meaningful personas.
  • Using Templates to Bring Personas to Life: Leverage this structured framework for organizing and presenting your collected data, as templates can help translate abstract audience characteristics into tangible and actionable personas. 
  • Reviewing and Updating Personas to Reflect Changes: Ensure that personas remain dynamic and reflective of your newsroom’s evolving audiences, enabling continuous alignment of content and product strategies with audience expectations.

Creating and using audience personas is essential for local publishers  aiming to enhance their subscription or membership programs. By segmenting your audience into detailed personas based on interviews, research, and data — highlighting their demographics, behaviors and preferences — you can tailor content and other offerings to meet specific reader needs. This targeted approach is exemplified by the Detroit Free Press’s development of personas for a specific subscriber group interested in Detroit Tigers MLB coverage.

Such personas can help lead to increased member conversion and retention, as seen in McClatchy’s strategy, ultimately supporting sustainable reader revenue.

Here are some key takeaways to help you try this approach: 

1. Segment Audiences to Create Tailored Messaging: Understanding your readership through the identification of core groups and creating comprehensive persona profiles for each demonstrates the power of segmenting audiences into distinct groups based on shared characteristics. The personas not only guide editorial planning, content creation and strategy, they also inform decisions on partnerships, event sponsorships and the introduction of new communication channels. For example, the Free Press subscribers were segmented based on their engagement levels, ranging from highly active readers to less engaged “zombies,” enabling the newsroom to tailor strategies aimed at bolstering retention. This nuanced understanding underscored the importance of not pigeonholing readers into single interest categories, but rather recognizing their potential interests in a variety of coverage areas, from politics to entertainment.

NPR’s Project Blueprint is also a useful template for identifying target audiences:

2. Track Audience Data to Serve Their Needs: The strategic collection and analysis of audience data play a pivotal role in producing journalism that resonates with readers, and encourages them to become paying subscribers or members. Methods for collecting data for these personas — which should include specific details about demographics, interests, behaviors and goals — range from online surveys to focus groups and in-depth interviews with actual readers. They enable newsrooms to gather firsthand insights into audiences’ reading habits, preferences and the challenges they face, which should be incorporated into the audience personas. The development of detailed personas, representing semi-fictional profiles of various audience segments, is at the core of this strategy. For example, the Akron Beacon Journal identified three target audiences, and then contacted people in those groups through more than 60 virtual interviews to learn more about their interests and expectations. For the Free Press, zeroing in on a specific subscriber group interested in Tigers coverage helped the newsroom dissect and understand the subscriber journey more effectively. This involved a detailed analysis of reader behaviors, facilitated by the creation of a specialized dashboard in partnership with Gannett’s audience experts, which provided insights into the reading habits of over 600 subscribers.

3. Use Templates to Create Personas That Humanize: Creating reader personas is a practice that not only clarifies who your readers are but also humanizes them, making the engagement process more personal and effective. Using templates to construct personas enables newsrooms to systematically capture a wide range of details about their audience segments, painting a vivid picture of the people behind readership stats. By adding photos to represent the personas and other biographical details, publishers give a name, face and story to audiences that reflect their unique traits and life contexts; it also helps the concept resonate with the staff in the newsroom and throughout the organization.

4. Update Personas to Keep Up with Audiences: By continuously iterating on these personas, based on ongoing reader feedback and evolving market trends, newsrooms can ensure their content and membership offerings remain closely aligned with the needs and preferences of their audience. This dynamic approach to engagement, underpinned by a deep understanding of audience personas, is instrumental in enhancing member conversion and retention, thereby securing a sustainable revenue stream for the newsroom. For example, because of their audience personas, the Beacon Journal ultimately delivered tailored content that resonated with local Black audiences (e.g. profiles of Black-owned businesses, investigation into a failed infrastructure project’s impact on Black families), created community advisory boards, launched staff diversity initiatives, and built stronger connections with Black community leaders.

Key indicators

For publications looking to more effectively develop, refine and deploy audience personas in their content and customer service strategies, the following key performance indicators will help you better address and serve audience needs with an eye toward developing a more engaged readership as well as stronger customer conversion and retention rates. 

  • Engagement Metrics by Persona: Monitor engagement rates (e.g. daily page views, time spent on page, newsletter subscriptions) for content tailored to each audience persona. Higher engagement rates indicate that your content is resonating well with the intended audience segments. For the Detroit Free Press, such metrics revealed several key findings: subscribers demonstrated a surprising interest in political coverage, a considerable number of subscribers were not leveraging the Free Press’ newsletters and a significant portion of the cohort displayed high loyalty with frequent daily engagements. These insights prompted a strategic shift toward increasing engagement among less frequent readers and boosting newsletter subscriptions, rather than solely focusing on increasing the volume of content consumed by already highly engaged readers.
  • Reader Feedback on Personalization: Collect and analyze reader feedback specifically concerning the personalization and relevance of both news and customer service content. Assess the degree to which content aligns with the identified needs, concerns and goals of each audience persona, which can be evaluated through content audits and reader surveys. This qualitative KPI can provide insights into how well personas are reflecting your actual audience.
  • Conversion Rate by Persona: Track the conversion rates of readers to subscribers or members for news and customer service content targeted to different audience personas. A higher conversion rate indicates that the persona-driven content strategy is effectively encouraging readers to become paying members.
  • Persona Impact on Subscriber/Member Retention: Measure the impact of persona-driven content strategies on subscription or membership retention rates. Improved retention rates suggest that personalized content is successfully meeting the needs and interests of subscribers or members. For the Free Press, strategies to enhance retention included incorporating breakout links in sports stories to funnel readers toward non-sports coverage and conducting surveys to glean deeper insights into subscriber preferences and satisfaction levels.
  • Persona Accuracy Score: Evaluate the accuracy of each audience persona by comparing predicted behaviors and preferences against actual reader feedback and engagement patterns. This can be quantified through surveys or A/B testing where readers’ reactions to persona-driven content are measured.
  • Persona Update Frequency: Monitor how frequently personas are reviewed and updated. Regular updates ensure that personas remain relevant and accurately reflect changes in audience demographics, behaviors and preferences. In addition, measure the frequency with which personas are referenced or used during both editorial and marketing planning. This KPI ensures that editorial and customer services decisions are consistently aligned with audience insights.


Testing out audience personas isn’t just a one-off task; it’s a blend of digging deep through qualitative insights and crunching numbers with quantitative data. This thorough approach is key to making sure your personas really reflect the diversity of readers you serve, and that the content you’re producing for these personas truly strikes a chord with them. First, set clear goals to test your personas. You might want to check how accurate your persona profiles are, see if the content tailored to each persona is hitting the mark or identify spots where the personas could use a bit of fine-tuning.

That’s why it’s important to A/B test your content. Consider creating two versions of the same piece of content, each shaped by the likes and dislikes of different personas. Then measure key indicators, such as how many people viewed the page, how long they lingered on the article, how widely it was shared and whether it nudged readers toward a subscription or membership. This will help you figure out which version of the content resonates more. Below is an A/B testing spreadsheet you can copy and adapt:

By analyzing how different audience segments engage with your content, you can uncover patterns in their content preferences, device choices and when they’re most likely to engage. This not only checks if your initial assumptions about your personas hold up, but also points out any areas where you may have missed the mark. It’s a continuous process. Based on what you learn from A/B testing, surveys, interviews and analyzing engagement data, keep refining your personas. This ensures they grow and change as your audience does, which means your content strategy will remain in tune with what readers want and need. Plus, keeping an eye on how audience behaviors and preferences shift over time helps keep your personas relevant, tweaking them to mirror any significant changes in your audience’s makeup or interests.

By taking this structured route to test and fine-tune audience personas, you’re not just throwing content out there and hoping for the best. Instead, you’re building deeper connections with readers, leading to content that captivates, satisfies, and boosts subscription or membership numbers. This sets the stage for a flexible engagement strategy that evolves with your audience.


Below is an example template in Google Slides that you can copy and use to create detailed user personas for newsrooms. From demographics to attitudes to content preferences, it captures key details that make a persona feel realistic and human rather than generic. The insights gained can better target content strategies and engagement initiatives. Some sections can be expanded, and additional details can be captured in a supplementary document as needed.

Persona Name: [Creative name that brings the persona to life]

Photo: [Stock photo representing the persona]  


  • Age: 
  • Gender:
  • Location:
  • Income level:
  • Family status: 


  • Media consumption habits: 
  • Content topics of interest:
  • Platforms/devices used regularly:
  • Frequency of news consumption: 

Values and Concerns:

  • Social causes they care about:
  • Issues they want addressed: 
  • Desires and aspirations: 
  • Worries and frustrations:

Quote: [“In their own words” quote exemplifying their attitudes]

Content Preferences:  

  • Preferred story formats:
  • Desired tone/voice: 
  • Preferred subscription options:
  • Desired level of engagement:

Goals: [Goals specific to this audience segment]

Frustrations: [Frustrations specific to this audience segment]

Local News Solutions

The Lenfest Institute provides free tools and resources for local journalism leaders to develop sustainable strategies to serve their communities.

Find Your News Solution
news solution pattern