Local news outlets have been on the ropes for a while, and this year is no different. Competition for digital advertising has been fierce, and it is well documented that two technology companies eat the lion’s share of the revenue.
In fact, just this month, HD Media LLC, a news publisher, filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the duopoly, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. The lawsuit asserts that the two companies are manipulating the digital-advertising market, making it difficult for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and others to survive.
Exacerbating the financial implications is the way in which these two tech companies disintermediate news distribution and consumption. Given this reality, how can local news organizations successfully compete and manage a successful audience relationship?
Local news study
Sarah Stonbely’s research, from the Center of Cooperative Media, identifies news ways to answer this question. Stonbely maps local news organizations (LNO) to their coverage area, using New Jersey as a proxy for other local news markets. She then applies demographics characteristics to these maps in a first step to understand which communities are served and to what degree. Importantly, studying the local news ecosystem offers insight into the needs and interaction of information producers, content, and their audiences.
This study includes local news outlets such as newspapers, local television, and radio stations and digital native news outlets in New Jersey. In total, 779 local news providers are part of the analysis.
Stonbely’s mapping of local news outlets shows that communities characterized by less education and located in rural areas are less served. Further, the research also shows that Hispanic communities are particularly underserved by local news.
In contrast, communities with higher income and located in the suburbs are served by more local news organizations. Interestingly, education is not a significant variable. The level of education does not necessarily correlate to whether a community is more or less likely to have a greater number of local news originators.
More affluent municipalities are more likely to have a greater number of local news providers serving them. And, in turn, a community in the lowest income bracket (median household income of $25,000 to $50,000) is more than twice as likely to be a news desert as a news oasis.
It is not surprising that local news organization coverage correlates to a higher median household income. Increasingly, local news outlets are supported by those able to pay for their content. While, the audience-revenue model is key to sustainability, the author’s findings suggests that this model does not serve lower income communities because they may lack the ability to pay for news access.
And even for those supported by advertising, more affluent communities are likely to boast more potential advertisers as well as present appealing demographics to those advertisers. In either case, less affluent communities are not able to sustain local journalism, which in turn can expand the economic divide.
Municipalities with the greatest percentage of Hispanic residents are most likely to be news deserts. In fact, the likelihood of having a higher number of local news outlets increases as the percentage of the population that is Hispanic decreases.
As such, the research reveals that New Jersey’s largest minority is underserved (ethnic outlets were not available to map). While there are certainly some Hispanic news organizations, additional investment in local news would better support local markets.
Local news also helps keeps a watch on municipal spending. Stonbely reports that New Jersey municipalities spent $15,1 billion the year this research conducted. Almost half, $7.4 billion, was spent in municipalities with zero to two local news originators. Community journalism’s coverage of municipal spending is important in maintaining a transparent and honest local governance.
Road to sustainability
The findings here align well with the Local Journalism Sustainability Act introduced in July 2020 by Representative Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ), which offers an alternate revenue model to fund local news. The bill allows individual and business taxpayers tax credits in support of local newspapers and media. In addition, the bill allows for philanthropic funding to be put toward local news operational costs.
Stonbely’s work offers a granular and comparative view of New Jersey communities served by local news coverage. The work provides insights into how mapping local news organizations to communities can highlight opportunities for improvement and growth. This study reveals gaps that news outlets can fill to fuel new audience relationships. It also provides a stark look at the realities of finding a model that both sustains local journalism and the interests of the communities these outlets serve.
As McKinsey reminds us, great products result when companies build bridges between technology innovation and audience preference. It is critical to deliver a holistic experience across functions and every stage of the customer journey. In media, aligning teams to develop data-informed products that engage audiences is more than a pathway to excellence. It’s essential for survival.
However, it can also be expensive to support. The record number of newsroom closures in 2020 offers unsettling proof that quality content cannot be the only draw. Organizations need to combine content and experience in new ways that decrease friction, increase satisfaction, and adapt to how consumers want to interact and where they are in the journey.
Continuing with our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Millie Tran, chief product officer at The Texas Tribune. A local news success story, the Texas Tribune has built a sustainable business, employing more than 60 journalists through a range of revenue sources, including thousands of paying members.
Drawing from her experience at the Tribune, as well as The New York Times and Buzzfeed, Tran shares how the Tribune aligns editorial with the back-end processes to adapt content and coverage to what most readers find most useful. She also reveals how her team harnesses audience data and innovative news modules and visualizations to drive a 2x increase in homepage views and keep readers coming back.
Watch the video or read the full transcript below.
Peggy Anne Salz: Product is the new marketing, but it’s not a new focus. It is gaining new significance as content companies’ perfect ways to draw from their data, to customize content and measure the results. But what are the business benefits? How can you individualize flagship products to drive views and longer sessions? How should you focus efforts and investments? Tough questions, yes, but we get the inside track here today from The Texas Tribune on Digital Content Next.
I am your host, Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant and frequent contributor to Digital Content Next. Of course, DCN is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally.
So my guest today is the chief product officer of The Texas Tribune. So it is a perfect match with our topic. That is where she leads audience, engineering, data, design, marketing, and communications and loyalty teams. Before this, she was deputy off-platform editor at The New York Times and before that global growth editor.
I am so excited to have her here today to talk about how she creates a holistic and successful product. Millie Tran, welcome to Digital Content Next. Great to have you here.
Millie Tran: Thanks for having me Peggy. I am excited to talk.
Peggy: It is a great topic. Product is so important, and I would like to start by understanding the alignment between product and the newsroom.
So, just thinking about your day-to-day routines, strategically and in practice, what does that look like?
Tran: I love this question. You know product can feel really opaque. I think traditionally we think of product as sitting in the center. But at a news organization, the news is the product.
So that alignment between product and the newsroom really manifests in the alignment with me and our editorial director Stacy-Marie Ishmael. I would say we are constantly in communication. And one of our core functions in each of our roles is just making decisions, making a call under conditions of uncertainty, conflict, complexity and increasing and sometimes unknown interdependencies.
We make a decision over here it can affect two things over there. And we are in a process of constantly anticipating those downstream effects so we can make the smartest decision based on our strategy. The balance between editorial decisions, product decisions and revenue decisions.
How I see my job. I think it is a mix of people, process and product. And I think it has to be in that order. It has to be that you understand people, their roles, their jobs, their skills, to work together most efficiently and effectively to build that product.
Salz: I love that because first of all you have people first, that resonates with me and you are thinking about not just the output, not just the articles, videos, podcasts, whatever it needs to be. You are focused on an experience. What you yourself have called a more holistic product. I would like to understand what you mean by that. I think you have also tweeted about that as well.
Tran: Probably. Speaking of tweets, I was just reminded of this tweet that Margaret Sullivan shared the other day about how she is a big fan and supporter of local news. But the websites are so horrendous, and I think that neatly ties up with what you are asking. Holistic to me means the whole experience. All of those things you mentioned, those modules, articles, videos, podcasts. There are micro experiences to each of those things, but all of those add up to the overall user experience.
When I say holistic user experience, I also mean not just the engineering, not just the CMS, it is also the design. It is also the way we write headlines, for example. So it is organizationally something we want to provide our users. I know even the ads we consider putting on our website, are not random ads that are offensive and distracting to the journalism. If you go to our website, you will see right now the ads are very relevant to someone interested in Texas, for example.
Salz: That is very important because relevancy, as you said, it is the entire experience, and it has to fit together. What are the systems I am even interacting with or working with in the first place? It goes far beyond CMS is what I’m hearing.
Tran: It is, and I would say we have a great tech setup here, our CMS is homemade, so that is our engineering team’s biggest product, and that powers our website. We have our data visuals team who are doing one off projects that we can test and learn from.
So we have a way to experiment with new products and a nice process to build it into the broader systems to make it easier. It is this nice feedback loop of experimenting, learning, and then integrating it into how we just do our work.
So our journalists and editors can also make these things easily because that also informs the work product at the end.
Salz: I want to get back to the whole idea of delivering a product, a product is the new marketing. We said that at the top and it is a success when it either acquires audiences or deepens the connection with existing ones. What is it at The Texas Tribune? What is your audience approach? Is it acquisition or retention or maybe, something else?
Tran: That is a great question. I think it has to be both acquisition and retention.
One of our big strategic priorities right now is double and diversify. Doubling our audience and making our audience reflect Texas, be more representative of Texas.
I often think about our membership. We want to grow the number of people who are supporting us through small dollar donations. The way to increase the members is to either have more people come to your site and then you have this natural conversion flow.
A percentage of our total readers are members so there is this natural conversion flow already. So you get more members by increasing the number of people who come to you or you increase the effectiveness of converting them. So at every point, do they come back, do they potentially sign up for a newsletter? We have seen that newsletters are our most effective channel in membership conversion. So: getting a reader to donate to us. I think it is about putting both of those things into a framework that helps you understand the costs and benefits of each at every point.
So, I think it is about having all the data, putting it in a model and framework that helps you balance all of these things. I don’t think you can just choose one or the other. Having that broad view will help you make better decisions.
I said that is a quantitative framework and to loop back to what you said about product is the new marketing. I think people subscribe to things. They support organizations, they support brands for reasons that we can’t always quantify. It is really important also to understand the emotional connection that someone has to your product and your organization, your brand.
I think in addition to having that quantitative framework, you need a way to understand why people are supporting you. I think that goes back to an organization’s mission and values.
Something that I am really proud that we do is have our journalism free to publish for kind of any news organization.
When you support us, you support Texas overall having a better news ecosystem. I think people, that resonates with people. I think understanding that resonates with people is really important, even if you cannot quantify it in that model I just talked about. To your question it is balancing the acquisition and retention, but also balancing the measurables and immeasurables.
Salz: I like that because that is exactly it, it is very holistic. It is about looking at what you can measure, and we will talk about that in a moment.
There are events, there are metrics, there are things you want to optimize too, but you also want to optimize the experience. That is thinking about the people, the audience, what resonates with them, what did they appreciate?
Now I would love for you to unpack that. Maybe you can give an example, walk us through the homepage because that is where the conversions happen. That is where the conversations happen.
Tran: Yes, so let me just pull up my homepage for you. This is The Texas Tribune homepage. There are two things on here already that I can talk through that we just launched within the past year during my time at the Tribune.
So this navbar is something we launched and what you’re seeing here, by the way, these little green numbers are live audience data. We use Parse.ly for this so we can see in the last 10 minutes or whatever time period, what people are clicking on. We can see what is of interest, what is resonating with people, that will inform, not necessarily decide, what we choose to feature.
Going back to what I was saying, about our two teams, the data visuals team, which is in the newsroom and then the engineering team. This navbar was code that was in a previous, I think it was in an election page, a way for us to highlight different topics on that page. We ended up pulling that code and the engineering team made it a part of our core CMS.
So we took something that was a one-off, we learned about how people used it and then saw a need for it. There are so many coronavirus stories that we did not know how to surface all the different lines and angles. We knew that we had the code. We took it and then the engineering team built that feature into our CMS. Now editors can just choose their own topics each day and highlight the most important. I think that is a great example of the culture of experimentation, it is a culture of learning and iterating.
When the most people are on our homepage, we want to optimize for the most important things that they should see.
That was one quick way that we did that. Another way is this coronavirus in Texas model you will see here.
I think the beauty in all of this again, is the flexibility and adaptability. It’s actually not a coronavirus in Texas model. It is a model to feature any kind of series that we choose.
You can imagine this not being here. If you are scrolling through, it would take so long to see all the relevant stories in one place. This in itself is such a great product because it does a lot of things. It gives you the latest coverage in a very skimmable way. So you are not having to scroll so deep because most people don’t, and again, that is understanding the audience behavior and making it a better product, given that information. We also have feature coverage, so it is not just chronological, it is our editorial priorities.
I talked about newsletter subscribers and having that module there is really important to us because if we can get people to subscribe to our newsletters, they can become part of our email universe and therefore eventually hopefully become a member.
Salz: Absolutely. You can re-engage with them and talking about engagement you have some other modules that you were showing me in prep that I was very interested in. How you turned a news story into a module. Can you walk me through that as well?
Tran: Yes, absolutely. This is a story that we did, late last year about how Texas has made it easier and harder for people to vote in the pandemic.
You will see if you notice the order here. This was not the original order and what we did was make sure that we were tracking what people were clicking on, so we can get a sense of what people needed to know most. We ended up moving that question about when was the last day to register to vote first. And again, I think that’s just being responsive to reader needs, working with our newsroom, working with our engineering team, working with our data visuals team to really have an integrated news driven, but reader informed product. And you’ll also see here there’s fiscal support, right?
So April Hinkle who’s our chief revenue officer was able to take it to market and get funding for it. Again, this is just one way that we really tied in, the newsroom, product and revenue.
Salz: You more than doubled your views to the homepage in just one month.
So you went from 400,000 in February to more than a million in March, obviously breaking news, very important. We’re all talking about COVID, but that number is also consistent. So you keep them coming back. We talked about how that works when there’s news, breaking news, but of course it’s not a static world out there.
So I’d like to understand how you adjust to make the changes in the editorial product accordingly to keep that number as high as it is.
Tran: We found that our readers who visit the homepage are just also more engaged with us, right? They’re more loyal. They visit an average of 2.3 pages versus 1.4 of all visitors on site. They stay on the site for longer to 2 minutes, 45 seconds compared to 1 minute and 10 seconds for all visitors.
So they are more engaged. They’re reading more, they’re staying longer. So I really want to retain this audience. If this goes down, that would be a huge red flag to me because there are people who have come to, I would say, depend on us.
So I think it’s one, meeting that editorial promise and mission. And then two, it’s about making that experience better. And that’s all the things we talked through about making the homepage, you get more information in one glance, it’s fast. Speed matters in page loads.
And going back to your very first question about alignment between news and products, that’s one way to bring together that news promise and also making the best product experience for that person looking for information.
Salz: Of course, there’s another side to this. There are the challenges, you see it everywhere. Local newsrooms are crunched, even closing down. I’d like to have an understanding about the investment and staffing necessary to achieve what you’ve been able to do.
Tran: I’ll always say that it begins like starts and ends with the journalism, but I think just as important is having the kind of architecture and infrastructure to support that journalism.
So I think it’s really important to invest just as much in the scaffolding around the journalism to enable that journalism, with a continued focus on the reader and I think it’s important to say also the revenue.
And in terms of investment, we’re hiring two people right now for our marketing team because that marketing function actually serves several parts of the organization.
It serves our republishing strategy. It serves our event strategy, which has a direct line to revenue. And it serves our membership strategy, which has a line to revenue. Thinking about all the things that make things you see at the back end possible is really important. So that’s where we’re focusing our investments for this year.
Salz: I’d like to just think about going forward in a different way. You talk about holistic product and I’m looking at this all the time, what is the next big thing? Although I have to say we have a lot of work to do on the existing products we have.
We haven’t really nailed it in apps, but we are talking about AR, we are talking about voice, both are poised for explosive growth.
So let’s talk about what other innovations you might be looking at or ways you want to make your product or plan to make your product more engaging, more accessible, and increase of course engagement retention in the process. What’s on the horizon?
Tran: You mentioned AR, that’s definitely not in my roadmap. But voice on the other hand, that is more plausible.
With voice for example we have a pretty robust suite of audio products already. We just rebooted Point of Order which is our podcast with our CEO, Evan Smith ahead of The Texas Legislature being in session again. So I think it’s about aligning what we have currently to build off on and then really sizing the opportunity for us. Again, I’m really laser focused on understanding the ROI of every investment, predicting and modeling the outcomes of that. And I think in doing that you’re balancing high risk with high reward. And I think not everything will fall into that. But you also don’t want to limit yourself in not taking those risks. So anyway, to your actual question… I’m thinking about all of it and hoping that we can make the smartest decisions that aligns with our strategy, with the information we have.
Salz: I think you will, because of course you have these very specific guidelines. You’re thinking about people, you’re thinking about process, and you’re aligning to create a holistic experience. Some of these will play a role. Some of them, of course, maybe not. But all of it will be very interesting to watch as it goes forward.
Thank you so much for sharing Millie, for speaking about what you’re doing at The Texas Tribune, showing it as well in your homepage and giving us a little peek into where your thinking is going into the future. Thanks again for being on.
Tran: Thank you so much Peggy. This was great.
Salz: Thank you. And of course, thank you for tuning in and taking the time today. In the meantime, of course, be sure to check out all the great content here on digitalcontentnext.org or join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg.
So until next time, I’m your host Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Digital Content Next.
Around the world, mobile accounts for just over half of all online traffic. However, a concerningly large number of local news publishers have sites that are either inaccessible to mobile users, or are slow to load and clunky.
“A good mobile experience is absolutely pivotal,” emphasized news industry analyst Ken Doctor, who is launching his own local news outlet Lookout in the fall. “At least 65-70% of news reading is mobile. That defines the landscape. If you want to be in the news distribution business, you’ve got to go where people are.” And they are using their phones.
But providing a good local news experience is about more than just making sure the content is accessible to readers. “The massive yet slow movement of traditional publishers to the web meant that they largely took their news sections and put the headlines on mobile in the most boring way possible,” Doctor explained. “A good local newspaper always gave you a sense of city life. It would show you the problems. But it also told you what was going on in town, fun things to do, characters in town.”
According to Doctor, most mobile experiences from local publishers lack a sense of place. “And local press at its best has always been about a sense of place.”
Many legacy organizations struggle to cater to the growth of mobile. But some recent launches have shown just how vital a good mobile experience is. Here, three publishers explain how they’re putting the mobile experience at the front and center of their local news delivery.
Spectrum’s new News App
SSpectrum Networks, a News and Sports Network owned by Charter, has recently launched its own local news app. The Spectrum News App combines written reporting from existing newsrooms and curated content from partner news organizations. It also includes local weather and linear feeds of all Spectrum News networks.
Although Spectrum already has local linear news networks, they saw a mobile app as a way to go deeper into those communities with a wider range of content. “We were seeing these trends with mobile growth just exploding, and TV and mobile getting to a similar amount of time spent,” said Alison Hellman, Group VP, Audience and Content Strategy at Spectrum. “It made sense for us as a business, but when you look at the gaps, there really is a gap in high-quality, targeted local news. We wanted to bring it to a new platform, and that’s how we got here.”
The app has live video and podcasts as well as text content. Hellman emphasised that it was how it all worked together which is one of the key draws. “Weather is critical for local news, and it’s not just the data, but it’s about the context,” she explained. “If we do this right, we are a one stop shop. People are doing some of these pieces well in the mobile space. But no one was providing it all.”
The app is free to access to all 28 million of Spectrum’s residential customers. For non-customers, the company offers a 30 day trial. The mobile initiative is a play for a long-term relationship with their customers. “We want to be a part of their lives in the way that they live their lives,” Hellman said. “If they watch TV, we want to be there. But if they’re on the go, we want to be providing that information as well.”
Each locale in the Spectrum News App features original content produced specifically for the app by dedicated local digital journalists. It is also includes content from nearly three dozen local news partners. Sources range from major daily newspapers to community digital news outlets. This has helped bolster the app’s content in local areas.
Launching The Longmont Leader
McClatchy is another publisher using mobile as a key part of its local news strategy. The company has partnered with Google to found The Compass Experiment. This news laboratory explores new sustainable business models for local news. The second of their local news sites, The Longmont Leader, was launched in May in Colorado.
Rather than building the site from scratch, The Compass Experiment partnered with Village Media, which operates a number of local news sites in Canada. Village Media’s platform is mobile-responsive. It also has features such as classifieds and obituaries which can sometimes be complex to build and manage from scratch.
The Compass Experiment’s General Manager Mandy Jenkins explained that partnering means the team can focus resources on reporting rather than development. “I’ve seen other startups that have built their own thing. It always ends up being more expensive and more clunky than they think,” she said. “Ultimately, there’s a lot of people who do this well. And I don’t feel like we have to reinvent the wheel.”
The team did extensive research in the local community before launching to find out what people’s expectations were around both the content and the experience. The answers were unsurprising, but included not wanting hugely busy screens, ads popping up or autoplay videos. A clear, easy-to-navigate site was needed. And with the vast majority accessing the internet via mobile, a mobile-default mindset was essential.
This mindset extends back even to before the stories are published. “Even within the CMS, when [the journalists] produce stories, we get a mobile preview by default,” explained Jenkins. “Most of our readers are on mobile, so that’s where we have to look at it.”
This mobile-first thinking doesn’t have to mean producing an app as there are plenty of ways to engage users through mobile sites. “Although we’re not going with an app strategy, we’re sticking with a mobile web strategy, we’re still looking at doing mobile push alerts,” Jenkins outlined. “Not just for breaking news, but things like local election alerts and what’s going on around town. We’re starting to put together the strategy around that and how we’ll use them.”
Lookout for local news in Santa Cruz
Unlike Spectrum and The Longmont Leader, Ken Doctor’s Lookout has yet to launch. However, he is applying his extensive knowledge of the news ecosystem to how he and the team are shaping the Santa Cruz, CA publication.
Doctor is working on the assumption that around four fifths of the readers are going to be on mobile. So, the whole experience will be mobile-first. Like the Longmont Leader, Lookout has chosen not to build the site from scratch. Instead, they’ve opted to use the L.A. Times’ Graphene platform. The team will benefit from the technology expertise and development resources of a much larger publisher, which allows Lookout to focus on the content.
Lookout will also focus on just content for the first few months, saving audio and video capabilities for later down the line. But they are looking to get the community involved very early on.
“We have a number of community features and interactive features that are important in terms of the two-way communication between our reporters and the public,” Doctor explained. “It’s a small community – 275,000 people – and to get to know them, to be able to interact with them and do weekly chats with the correspondents, those kinds of things are build-in.”
However, a good mobile experience is just a part of the puzzle piece for local news organizations. “It’s a combination of what kind of content [it is], how it’s presented, what the overall experience is, and how it’s optimized,” Doctor outlined.
His advice for local publishers looking to provide a better experience is to work hard to understand their readers and would-be readers. “They need to understand how their reading habits work today, because they’re not going to change those reading habits,” he emphasized. “It takes a mind shift and it takes investment, and it’s amazing how slow both moves have been.”
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic has galvanized the media industry into action. Even as audience numbers have “skyrocketed,” the advertising revenue that sustains much of the media ecosystem has taken a sharp hit. And this, even as a new batch of advertisers seek to reach a newly minted niche of stay-at-homers, big spenders in retail and luxury markets are suspending buying activity. According to chief executive of G/O Media Jim Spanfeller, the situation feels similar to that following 9/11.
For some publications that are dependent on local advertising – those in local and regional media and freesheets/ alt weeklies – the situation is acute. There have already been some high-profile newspaper closures. Some publishers are already making cuts, and taking drastic measures to keep costs down, while continuing to pump out the news people need.
Even some incredibly well-known media brands
are being forced to reappraise models that have seemed sustainable in the past,
with the Evening Standard freesheet in London cutting its circulation to manage
costs as advertisers pull out. Its chief executive Mike Soutar noted that “in
the context of currently lower advertising volumes, it makes good economic
However, for every publication like Playboy – which is cancelling all print issues for 2020 – there are other media companies launching endeavors in the light of what seems likely to be “the new normal.” Given the uncertainty about whether the advertisers that have decamped will return, coronavirus has effectively pressed fast-forward on trends that have been ongoing for years, forcing publications to adapt quickly rather than relying on a slow tail of dwindling print advertising, news avoidance, and limited growth in subscription revenue.
Jokes about Zoom being responsible for the outbreak aside, the pandemic has demonstrated the extent to which media businesses with events-based portfolios are exposed to mass shutdowns. Even with government support, some events-oriented media businesses are looking at furloughing employees, making redundancies, or shuttering entirely.
It’s been gratifying, then, to watch the speed
which publishers large and small have transitioned to digital-only events.
UK-based news start-up Tortoise, for instance, used its ‘ThinkIn’s (intimate
events for members) as one of its key selling points in the first few months of
its existence. Within a week of the (inadequate) UK government advice, it had
transitioned to hosting Digital ThinkIns instead.
By doing so it is continuing to provide for its core audience, delivering on what its cofounder Katie Vanneck-Smith has described as a club-like mentality model of membership: “I think people will pay for what they value, and really brilliant businesses and brands have always built their businesses based on consumer insight, understanding what customers want, and then super-serving it.
“But I think, particularly in my industry, if
you’re a newspaper – we’ve always had an arms-length relationship with the
consumer, and that physical manifestation of the relationship we had actually
became in many ways a cultural manifestation. And I think we lost that
relationship. We forgot that ultimately we’re there at the service of our
Meanwhile, UK magazine The Big Issue is primarily there at the service of the seller. The magazine’s content is excellent. However, it is better known for the revenue-share model it operates with its street vendors, in order to lift them out of poverty. Noting that it – and therefore the vendors – will be hit hardest by a lack of footfall in cities, it has prioritized its digital subscriptions. While it is yet unclear about how the revenue share will work in the meantime, it has brought attention to the existence of the digital subscription offer at a time when readers are becoming habituated to paying in that way.
In the states, Gannett, which publishes about 100 local papers and 1,000 local weeklies, is trying its hand at supporting the local businesses that, in turn, are the lifeblood of its advertising. The media company launched a new website, Support Local, which encourages users to support local businesses in their community by buying gift cards for use at a later time.
There is a separate debate to be had about whether news publishers should make their coronavirus coverage free to access. Many already have. What is undeniable, however, is that a raft of media companies have loosened or dropped their paywalls for the foreseeable future.
While many are motivated by a mandate to keep the public informed during this pandemic, some are doing so because event cancellations mean that they effectively have no product to sell. As sporting events are postponed or outright deleted from schedules, broadcasters with tentpole sports channels have transitioned to retention strategies. In the US, for instance, both the NFL and the NBA have offered free access to their sporting archives in lieu of new content. What this means for The Athletic, which has recently been on a hiring spree, is less clear.
Some brands have spotted the opportunity of opening the vaults to fitness apps and services. Popsugar bumped up the launch of its fitness service Active. While there are still plans to monetize it further down the line, for now the service will remain free in order to act as a lightning rod for audiences seeking at-home fitness classes. Digiday’s Kayleigh Barber reports that Active’s general manager Angelica Marden said: “We’re happy to introduce the people to this platform in this weird time and hope that they will come back to us.”
By doing so, the hope of many is that a newly
captive audience will develop a habit. Whether that’s because of appreciation
for a service when they needed it, or because they got a taste of the quality
that exists behind the paywall, it doesn’t really matter. Once something
approaching normality has resumed, the hope is that those habits linger.
For newspapers the ambition is greater still.
Trust in a title is the measure by which audiences choose which outlets to
subscribe to. In an age where perhaps only ten international English-language
news brands can sustain themselves through subscriptions, this is a golden
opportunity for papers to demonstrate their worth.
Even brands that haven’t historically been known for their hard-hitting coverage are stepping up. LadBible, the youth-oriented social publisher best known for its “lads lads lads” school of content curation, was praised by the World Health Organisation for its ‘Cutting Through’ COVID-19 campaign.
For subscription-focused publications, the
coronavirus has acted as a Trump Bump or Brexit Bounce in fast-forward (COVID
Crunch?), pushing audiences to well-known brands in order to find out the facts
about the spread of the pandemic. Bloomberg and The Atlantic have seen spikes in subscriptions. Given that they are
among the titles that have dropped the paywall for coronavirus coverage it
suggests that audiences are either altruistically supporting titles they
believe are fighting the good fight, or that vital news coverage has a halo
effect on subscriptions.
The inevitable tide
That said, some of these moves were not
entirely unforeseen. Playboy, for instance, was already several steps down the
path to repositioning as a “luxury bookazine,” while membership-based
journalism projects like Tortoise were already looking to build digital
audiences through online events.
Membership schemes were already on the rise. However, coronavirus is providing publishers with a clarion call to which supporters can rally. Even the sports broadcasters were already looking at their stock of past broadcasts in an effort to set themselves apart from competitors.
While there have been a few entirely novel projects – like a mooted magazine about self-isolation – publishers are still playing catch-up with the pandemic, particularly as they scramble to set up remote working and reel from the health impact on their own staff. There will undoubtedly be new business and journalistic opportunities launched over the coming months as the new reality becomes apparent. For now, however the dreadful treadmill of survival is setting an unforgiving pace, and an industry that was already perilously close to the edge is now forced to sprint to keep up.
As 2019 comes to an end, we see that publishers have reevaluated their relationship with technology platforms. According to the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s new report, Platforms and Publishers: The End of an Era, news publishers no longer expect scale and ad-based platform products to earn significant revenue or bring audience growth. Publishers recognize that monetizing traffic from posting a news story on Facebook is not a sustainable business model. Tow’s year-long research included 42 interviews with individuals from 27 news organizations (representing national and local outlets, national and local digital natives, broadcast, audio, and magazine), six platform companies, and one foundation.
According to the Tow report, this new publisher sentiment is
a complete departure from a year ago, when publishers were still hopeful about
partnering with platforms to help sustain the news business. Today, publishers
report that they are examining internal business strategies and the rise of reader
revenue to further revenue diversification (e.g. live events and podcasts) to regain
control of their audiences.
Publishers are thoroughly assessing which platforms fit their
needs best and identifying the necessary requirements for the platforms to
meet. Tow’s research identifies four key explanations as to why publishers are more
selective today about platform partnerships. They:
No longer feel they are missing out if they choose not to partner with a platform
Have seen insignificant return on investment from previous platform partnerships and products
Better understanding of the extensive integration costs and expense of supporting third-party products
Have greater recognition of the conflicting business models between publishers and platforms
Little fanfare for new
Publishers note that platforms are closely following
subscription growth in the marketplace and now offer their own subscription
products. Last year Apple announced and launched Apple News+, a magazine and
news subscription service at $9.99 a month. In their deal with publishers, Apple
takes 50% of the revenue and the remaining is left to be divided among participating
Google rolled out a product called Subscribe with Google (it takes in the range of 5 to 15 percent of the revenue); and Facebook launched a paywalled version of Instant Articles. However, unlike previous rollouts of similar offerings, these overtures received little fanfare from publishers.
Further, publishers recall Google’s and Facebook’s “goodwill
initiatives” to help build stronger relationships with news publishers with
healthy skepticism. In January 2019, Facebook committed $300 million to local
news projects. In March, they kicked off with their first local
news summit as an effort to address newsroom operations. At the same time, Google
announced its commitment to local news and started a boot camp for eight
local subscription publishers.
Then in May, Facebook announced that it was bringing its Digital News Initiative stateside by funding projects to help generate revenue and increase audience engagement for local news. And, in September, Facebook awarded “Community Network” grants, to support initiatives that connect communities with local newsrooms. Even with these significant investments (in the range of $1.0 billion in total) publishers remain very skeptical about the platforms’ commitment to journalism.
Publishers think a lot about the future. Undoubtedly, the
platforms and their role in the online information ecosystem cannot be ignored.
As seen in the Tow report, publishers present their new awareness in pragmatic
terms. They are regaining control of how they publish and how they bring in
revenue. Importantly, while publishers are not abandoning the tech platforms, they
are much more carefully evaluating platform products in terms of business models,
audience growth, and the editorial relationship.
papers depend on building communities based on geography. But younger people
prioritize interest-based communities. So, how can local and regional papers build
new relationships with digital natives?
At the latest World News Media Congress in
Glasgow, the publisher of The Globe and Mail Philip Crawley spoke about the
unsurpassed value of an engaged local audience. He argued that—while digital
engagement metrics provide invaluable data about audience funnels and
propensity to convert—there are metrics that are unique to regional media they
consider just as important.
He used the example of the paper’s packed
obituaries pages to illustrate how a local title can measure its tangible
engagement with an audience through non-digital interactions. Ultimately,
Crawley made it clear that the worth of a local title cannot be measured
through ones and zeroes alone.
Regional titles have long been experts in
measuring engagement. These metrics might be tallying attendance at events they
organize, counting submissions to the letters pages, or by less concrete
metrics like the willingness of the public to interact with their journalists.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily translate to sustainability, even for publishers that have the same drive to reinvest in news products. Whether it’s due to quirks of geography, unpredictable societal differences, or for any number of reasons, local news publishers have been hurting. Investment in the print product is no guaranteed panacea either.
The key issue for many is that they have
struggled to find ways in which digital products can serve as a focus for local
engagement as print editions once did. Another factor is the often top-down
approach from regional publishers who try to use national-level engagement
metrics for their regional titles. Crucially, they largely miss those
specialist ‘obituary pages’ engagement measurements that are an indication that
audiences are invested in a community with a news brand at its center.
What does local engagement look like?
The race, then, is for local titles to
discover what local engagement looks like in the platform age before their
business models become unsustainable. To the industry’s great credit, it has
been quick to launch research projects designed specifically around that.
One, the Community Listening and Engagement Fund (CLEF), was co-founded by a group that includes the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The goal of this initiative is to develop tools that measure that engagement (as opposed to the many approaches around finding funding or cost-savings).
Meanwhile, Poynter launched the Table Stakes initiative, which focuses on diversifying revenue for local newspaper, public radio, or digital news organizations. And the recently announced Project Neon is explicitly focused on finding ways to intensify audiences’ engagement with regional publisher Archant’s titles. We can look forward to seeing useful findings from these efforts in a few years’ time.
in an uncertain future
Those efforts are welcome—and exactly what
the industry should be doing. The unfortunate reality, however, is that while
regional publishers have the expertise and history of engaging regional
audiences in print, digitally they are playing catch-up. This is particularly
significant given their need connect with younger audiences—and from something
of a standing start.
This is not a consequence of a lack of effort in engaging audiences. In fact, there has been plenty of excellent work done to discover how young audiences interact with news digitally. However, that hasn’t always helped local publishers build engagement with young people.
For instance, Research from Flamingo on behalf of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism demonstrates that, as a result of having grown up with ready access to the internet, younger readers do not necessarily share the same values or expectations about the purpose of news:
“They still need and want news to connect
their world to the world – and fulfil an array of different social and personal
needs – but they don’t necessarily see the traditional media as the best or
only way to do that… They don’t need to seek it out, news comes to them.” As a
result, the reality of engaging young audiences is that it is much harder to
build a community around a geographical rather than an interest-based niche.
The Flamingo study also found that no news
app was in the top 25 most-used app in their respondents’ phones. This implies that
local publishers must
have a presence on social platforms to reach those young audiences on which
they are increasingly going to rely.
To make matters more difficult, social platforms do not typically offer user data or tools that are of value to local publishers. (Although Facebook’s most recent endeavor in this area is reportedly better in this respect than past attempts). Local publishers are stuck between a rock and a hard place, then, trying to build communities on platforms that don’t necessarily cater to them.
In an excellent thread on Twitter, The Los Angeles Times’ engagement editor Adriana Lacy argued that publishers having a presence on even the recently-launched platforms like TikTok will eventually help with that engagement issue. However, she also notes it might take precious time – something local publishers particularly are often short of – to see any real return.
of the solution
Local and regional titles have always
relied on creating a community out of their local readers. Efforts like
comments sections on pages are useful for eyeballing the levels of community
engagement, but without a print title to provide those ‘obituary metrics’, and
with younger audiences increasingly finding ‘news’ content through platforms
and intermediaries, regional publishers have struggled to demonstrate they have
the heart and trust of a community.
One potential solution is for regional publishers to double down on what the BBC World Service Group’s head of editorial partnerships Emily Kasriel has termed ‘Solutions-focused Journalism.’ As Kasriel put it:
“Another factor driving our SFJ initiative
is the desire to better serve our audiences, particularly young people.
According to recent BBC Audience Research, 51% of 16-18 year olds and 47% of
19-24 year olds in the UK ‘agree or strongly agree’ that they want news to also
provide solutions. The figures were even higher in the developing world: 75% of
Indians, 78% of Nigerians and 82% of Kenyans of all ages want their news to
provide solutions and not just problems.”
Solutions-focused journalism, centered around local areas, are potentially how publishers can marry the interest-based communities of the internet to the local areas they cover. Here, they can happily use those platforms on which they have established themselves as both a place for discussion and to provide calls for action around those proactive, solutions-based causes they are championing. The UK’s Pink News, though an interest-based title, grew to be the largest LGBTQ+ publisher in the world as a result of its campaigning journalism, for instance.
Similarly, the Yorkshire Post’s high levels of trust in the community have been attributed in part to its campaigning journalism around loneliness in the region.
So, while there may not be a direct digital
successor to the ‘obituary metrics’ that demonstrated there was a community
around local print titles quite yet, it isn’t to say that it is impossible to
recreate those communities in the age of platforms. Instead, it could be that
regional publishers will find a new path by shifting from being passive but
present in the community to a much more pro-active and campaigning force around
which a new, younger community will form.
Nielsen numbers released last month show media consumption continues to climb with more attention being diverted towards smartphones than ever before. The total percentage of time spent on mobile among 18 to 34-year-olds has reached a new high — 34% up from 29% the previous year — at the expense of more traditional TV viewing. It’s a dramatic development that turns up the pressure on companies to produce content that is digital, mobile and video first. However, it’s not enough to get the array of platforms right. The approach to storytelling has to reflect a broader range of emotions and appeal to the desire of digital natives for news that is as personal as it is pertinent. ABC Owned Television Station is doing both. They are focused on creating a consumer connection with hyperlocal stories, which drives revenue.
Peggy Anne Salz —mobile analyst and Content Marketing Strategist at MobileGroove — catches up with Jennifer Mitchell, SVP Content Development for the ABC Owned Television Stations. Mitchell is responsible for leading the content strategies and original, digital content production for non-linear platforms across the group. She works directly with the station content teams to fuel expansion of the digital footprint. She leads production teams in New York and Los Angeles to develop new content and revenue opportunities. The most recent is Localish, a digital-native media brand that brings out the good in America’s cities, which launched on ABC platforms in fall 2018. Mitchell discusses how Localish has combined local storytelling and a diversified distribution strategy to engage Millennials and enhance the value of branded content.
Salz: At ABC, which owns its local affiliate in six of the eight largest media markets, you are building a new type of local-nation brand through Localish. What is the motivation and distribution strategy behind it?
Mitchell: Our eight local television stations have strong connections to our communities. With our Localish brand, we tap into those existing strong connections to broaden the types of content we produce. We provide more diverse storytelling than what you might normally see in a traditional newscast or local news website. Drawing on the demand for authentic and relevant local storytelling, Localish launched with four series – “More In Common,” “Secretly Awesome,” “My Go-To,” and “Worth the Wait.” Each individual series helps viewers live like a local by sharing insider tips on hot trends, cool digs, and best-kept secrets around food, travel, and culture. We’ve since added six additional series under the brand.
Our view is that this
is a brand and a type of content, locally sourced yet nationally relevant, that
can be everywhere and discovered anywhere. To support this, we have a very
diversified distribution strategy. To start, you can find the Localish content on
our eight local stations, both digital and linear. Because our stories generate
interest across the country, and not just locally, as well as around the world,
they transcend geographic boundaries. To reach
and engage these audiences, we have built out a footprint across the major
social platforms, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and
Instagram. We also have a presence in Oath and
there are other distribution opportunities that we are currently pursuing. The
goal is to seed the content where viewers prefer to consume it; what we call
the next generation of news and information.
Salz: You have a presence on the abc.com platform, which is where localish.com lives, and you have chosen not to have a standalone mobile app at this point. Was this decision deliberate?
Mitchell: Our brand is a digital-native media brand, and we want to be discovered and enjoyed by our audience, where our audience is. Our research on our top target audience tells us that 50% actively consume content on their smartphone across the day. They are also increasingly interested in local content. This trend is mirrored in Mary Meeker’s 2018 Internet trends report, which showed a 900% increase in Google searches for things that are “happening near me” or just nearby.
Our goal is to bring
in the audience from wherever they are and familiarize them with the brand so
that they continue to come back no matter where we are. Mobile websites do
this. Social is also a big component of driving traffic and audience for us.
From the perspective of discoverability and growth, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have been strong
platforms for us.
Salz:Granted, social is critical for discoverability and virality. However, there can also be tension.
Mitchell: It’s a delicate balance. And we weigh each decision about every additional distribution point very carefully. Data and research tell us that consumers congregate in certain places, and Facebook is one of them. Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube are also important platforms. We will continue to play in that space and we are also pursuing other opportunities to diversify the portfolio.
Salz:Nationally, TV is experiencing a difficult shift in business models. But local news appears to be experiencing a comeback. At Localish you recently marked a milestone of 140 million video views. What do you think is driving this renewed interest in local?
Mitchell: There is a local renaissance. And this isn’t just about there being increased interest in local stories, although our research shows there is. It’s about trust. With the public concern about “fake news” it’s local that is emerging as the most trusted source. In some cases, local news is more trusted than national news brands. We have that trust, and we are leveraging it in our markets. So, trust—consumers wanting to believe in the news—is driving a lot of this.
Audiences also want to
connect with the people and places that are important to them, both locally and
nationally. Localish becomes the connection point, connecting dots for people
and introducing them to things that they might not otherwise have known about. And when we talk about local news and
information, we have to recognize that the definition of news has changed and
evolved. It is not just about the day’s top stories. It’s about things that are
happening near people, where they live, and they want to know about it. It’s
our goal to surface that type of information locally. But we also want to
introduce it to a wider audience, using the platforms and technology that can
bring these stories to national and
international audiences who have an interest or are just curious about these
“Secretly Awesome,” a
show uncovering the hidden gems in communities, is an example of this. We see
from the engagement, particularly on Facebook Twitter, and Instagram, that
people are sharing this content with others who don’t live in those cities
saying, “Hey, the next time you’re here, we must go to this place” or “we must
visit this business” or “we must buy this product.” So, what we’re seeing is
content locally sourced, resonating with national audiences. It’s conversion
and the activation of audiences through a new approach to storytelling that
focuses on communities and connection.
Salz:Local news has evolved. What’s different about storytelling at the local level?
Mitchell: In a word: everything. It starts with the categories and topics we’re covering and extends to how we’re shooting pieces and telling the stories. The content is the focus, and many of the shows don’t have presenters. We’re finding it’s resonating with audiences because we’re getting right into the story. Our rule of thumb is to make sure the first three to six seconds of every piece of video we produce is compelling so that we draw the viewer in right from the start. We are also focused on positive storytelling. In many ways, it goes back to our brand attributes. Authenticity, curiosity, optimism, connected, unconventional: These are the words that we associate with the Localish brand. And this is the lens we use when we think about story selections.
We also extend the
concept to tell stories about commonalities people share that transcend local
storytelling to be more universal.
“More in Common,” which is different from many of the other lifestyle
travels shows we launched, is an example of this. It’s a show we did for
Facebook telling stories about people who are seemingly very different, from
different parts of the spectrum. But despite differences in their backgrounds,
politically, economically or socioeconomically, they come together and find
common ground and a common purpose. It shows the bridges being built between people of various races,
religions, genders, and backgrounds in
cities and towns across America. These are stories that resonate with our
audience. They defy the odds and remind us that, in a time when many Americans
feel divided, we can be the best when we can be together.
Salz:By design, these are stories that move our hearts and minds. How do you measure impact and gauge success?
Mitchell: Virality is certainly one. However, that’s something no media company can control, so it’s not something we count on—or measure—from a business perspective. Engagement is a key metric. Real-time data that we can see on our social platforms shows our audience is extremely engaged. We’re a video brand and so we naturally focus on video views and completion rates. In just 30 weeks since launch, we’ve seen over 140 million video views.
Performance is measured in audience and revenue. It’s
important to build a business and grow revenue opportunities. To this end,
we’re pursuing a number of traditional
and non-traditional revenue opportunities as it relates to this new brand. In
addition to licensing fees, we’ve also had some very successful ad sales deals
around sponsorship and branded content. As we evolve the brand, we will look
for ways to align our goals with the goals of our advertisers. There are local advertisers who want to acquire
local audiences at the granular hyperlocal level. This is at the heart of what
we do. We make connections with local audiences through content that they
Salz:It’s interesting that you can achieve this level of engagement without a strong emphasis on technology to enhance the experience such as AR/VR, for example.
Mitchell: Content is the central focus for us. Our distribution strategy is diverse and we’re always looking for new opportunities in technology to deliver the story to our audiences. But, through all of these mediums, the content comes first. To broaden our reach, we’ve packaged the digital content into linear television specials airing across stations, hosted by up and coming talent. To expand even further, the brand is additionally shown on TaxiTV in New York City and in major airports around the country. What excites me most about the future of Localish is the continued evolution of engagement, how people are consuming content the way they want. Where our content lives, and how it can be accessed will always be aligned with the consumer first.
We approach all
branded opportunities in the same way. The
aim is to seamlessly integrate the brand into the story in a way that our
audience views it as quality content, not advertising.
We were recently chosen as
one of seven premium brands for the Local Media Consortium and Local Media
Association’s Branded Content Pilot Project, which will further help us
accomplish that goal. With this support, we’ll have additional resources to
develop branded content with strong storytelling that makes sense for our
audiences. We’ll also have tools to better
understand which types of content work for our advertisers.
Editorial and storytelling are the priority, and we make that very clear with our clients and advertisers. We have the creative control, and these stories will be released in the weeks and months ahead. In many conversations with advertisers, clients and agencies, they tell us local content and our approach to storytelling is “new and shiny.” This is interesting because the technology isn’t the attraction. It’s the brand and the positivity—and the feeling of community we reinforce with content.
About the Author
Peggy Anne Salz is the Content Marketing Strategist and Chief Analyst of Mobile Groove, a top 50 influential technology site providing custom research to the global mobile industry and consulting to tech startups. Full disclosure: She is a frequent contributor to Forbes on the topic of mobile marketing, engagement and apps. Her work also regularly appears in a range of publications from Venture Beat to Harvard Business Review. Peggy is a top 30 Mobile Marketing influencer and a nine-time author based in Europe. Follow her @peggyanne.
Financially, it’s not the best of times for many local news companies in the U.S. Revenue losses continue as local publishers’ transition to digital platforms. While financial sustainability remains in question, overall findings from the new Pew Research Center survey show that consumers are engaged with local news. The favorite go-to for local news is TV (41%) with online access following closely behind (37%). About one in ten prefer a printed newspaper (13%) or radio (8%) for their local news.
Unfortunately, despite their reliance on local news, Pew’s research also reveals that consumers are not aware their financial woes. Seventy-one percent of U.S. adults think that their local news media is doing very or somewhat well. Yet only 14% directly pay a local news source either through subscription, donation or membership.
Going online for local news is a common practice for nearly all Americans. A full 89% get some of their local news digitally. This breaks down almost equally between those accessing websites and apps (26%) and social media (25%) I
Mobile is a big driver of reading local news online. Just
over half (51%) of those surveyed consume local news on mobile devices, 27% on
desktop/laptop, and 19% use both mobile and desktop. News alerts also factor
highly into usage. Forty-two percent of consumers consume local news alerts on
their mobile phones.
Local news plays an important role in the community. Eighty-five
percent report that it is important (very/somewhat) for local journalists to
understand the history of the community. Eighty-one percent think it’s
important (very/somewhat) for local journalists to be personally engaged in the
In all, almost two-thirds of consumers (63%) report that
local journalists are in touch with their community. However, far fewer (37%)
feel that local journalists are influential in the community. Not surprisingly,
people who view their local journalists as connected to the area give their
local news media higher ratings than those who do not.
The survey shows a key function of local journalism is to provide news to help local residents navigate their daily lives. Top news topics important to daily live include weather (70%), crime (44%), traffic (41%) and news about changing prices (37%).
The majority of consumers report that their local media is doing well on the job. Seventy-one percent say local media is reporting the news accurately, providing “news that you use daily” (67%), “keeping an eye on local political leaders” (66%), and “reporting news thoroughly” (65%).
Local news often tells the inside stories of communities. It plays a unique role ensuring news is relevant for a local audience. Importantly, innovation is in the works for local digital news. A number of industry initiatives are underway. Google recently announced their Local Experiments Project, a new partnership with McClatchy to fund the creation of three local digital-only, multi-platform publications. Facebook is also investing $300 million in journalism projects including a non-profit venture that focuses exclusively on local reporting. In each of these initiatives, publishers are part of the digital transformation of local news to ensure the presence of community engagement.
It’s essential for publishers to understand the different pathways to subscriptions to deliver value and engagement to consumers in the process. In new research, “Paths to Subscription: Why Recent Subscribers Chose to Pay for News,” the Media Insight Project—a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research—surveyed more than 4,100 recent newspaper subscribers to understand their motives and mindsets at the time of the decision-making. The report identifies nine distinct paths from reader to subscriber. (Some individual subscribers may fit into more than one group.)
The nine paths from reader to subscriber:
1. Digital Paywall Converters (21% of total respondents) buy a digital subscription for its unlimited access. They subscribe because they like to read interesting articles and want to support local journalism. Digital Paywall Converters tend to be younger, male, educated, have higher income, and are Democrat.
Digital Paywall Converters are twice as likely to subscribe to large metro newspapers compared to other subscribers. They like to share content and are more likely than other subscribers to use the paper’s mobile app and access articles through search engines. They are a digitally driven user segment. Nine in 10 Digital Paywall Converters (86%) state that their favorite benefit of their subscription is unlimited access to online content
2. Topic Hunters (23% of total respondents) are motivated to subscribe because of local politics and/or local sports (college or high school). They tend to be well educated and favor the digital experience. They often convert to subscribing because they are very engaged and hit a paywall meter limit.
Since Topic Hunters tend to be more digital, the best time to convert these readers to paying subscribers is when they are online. Using analytical tools (e.g. API’s Metrics for News) to track readers by topic is helpful in the conversion process. Newsletters can also be useful to engage readers around their interest areas and can help lead to paid subscriptions.
3. Locally Engaged subscribers (18% of total respondents) are interested in content about the community. They like being engaged and informed locally. They report that access to local news and politics are the major reasons they subscribe to newspapers. These subscribers are “news junkies,” especially about where they live, and want the news regardless of a discounted sale. The Locally Engaged are an important segment for smaller publications. Nearly half of the Locally Engaged subscribe to a small or medium-sized paper. Further, the Locally Engaged are more likely than other subscribers to value the accuracy and reliability of the news publication.
News alerts and email newsletters on local government, neighborhood, and other local civic topics are goods ways to attract and engage these subscribers.
4. Social Media-Mobile Discoverers (19% of total respondents) are subscribers who engage socially and use their mobile to access newspapers. They are very active with newspapers through news alerts, following journalists on social media and by sharing content.
Once they reach their metered limit, this segment (25%) is motivated to subscribe, particularly if they receive a promotional offer for unlimited articles. It’s important for publishers to consider mobile and social as two important paths to discover this segment of young readers.
Social Media-Mobile Discoverers tend to skew slightly female (53% vs. 46%), are much younger (51% are under the age of 60 vs. 28% of other subscribers) and are likely to be Democrats.
5. Journalism Advocates (24% of total respondents) subscribe to newspaper to support journalism. This segment values supporting news publishers and also likes to keep political leaders in check. Most Journalism Advocates identify themselves as Democrats. They are more likely than other subscribers to have a college degree (76% vs. 64%) and are also younger (40% under age 60 vs. 30%).
Journalism Advocates are much more likely than other subscribers to mention they were attracted to subscribe because they witnessed attacks on the news media (25% vs. 2%) and because of they saw messaging to support local journalism (23% vs. 1%).
6. Life Changers (16% of total respondents) subscribe because of a transition in their life, be it a move or new job. For Life Changers, a subscription is not based on the editorial or marketing offer of the newspaper. Life Changers highly value local news and want to support local journalism. This segment is likely to prefer the print access over digital.
To target Life Changers, publishers should find readers who are new to the area, recent graduates, retirees or transplants. They should seek partnerships with local organizations or groups, such as realtors, colleges, or employers, to offer discounted subscriptions. Life Changers and Locally Engaged both have an affinity for following local news.
7. Coupon Clippers (12% of total respondents) subscribe to newspapers because of the value of the discounted offer. Discounts and promotions motivate Coupon Clippers to subscribe. This group is more likely to be women, identify as Republicans or independents, have less education and lower incomes, live in the suburbs and prefers print.
8. Print Fans (16% of total respondents) like the experience of reading a printed newspaper. They are big fans of print home delivery. While they also use a newspapers’ digital app, they like to start their day with a hard copy of the news. The majority of Print Fans are female and more than half live in the suburbs.
This segment is very interested in gaining access to exclusive content that is available only to those who subscribe to both print and digital.
9. Friends and Family (15% of total respondents) subscribe because they see it as a way to connect with loved ones. The paper is an extension of their social lives. It’s what they talk about over dinner or in a telephone conversation. Local news is important to Friends and Family but current events and other topics (lifestyle, sports, etc.) are also important. Friends and Family tend to skew heavily female compared with other subscribers (60% vs. 45%), be Democrats (61% vs. 48 of other subscribers) and are slightly more urban (36% vs. 27%).
Publishers should think about testing “refer a friend” programs, where subscribers can refer friends or family to receive a discount or as a gift. Publishers should also offer discounts and benefits to those who refer new subscribers.
Consumers interact with a newspaper and its journalists in many ways before subscribing. It’s important for publishers to study these interactions and identify the moments of engagement. Identifying these moments along with important background factors are strong targeting opportunities to add subscribers.
We were wasting time chasing display advertising dollars.
That’s the big lesson Spirited Media learned at the end of 2017, an awakening of sorts for us at the parent company of Billy Penn in Philly, The Incline in Pittsburgh and Denverite in Denver.
Now don’t get me wrong, we believe still that there are companies in and around our cities that are interested in partnering with us to reach our audiences — which are generally young, affluent and very civically engaged. And we’d had an encouraging start to the year by pursuing display ad sales. We needed that success to continue; that’s what we built our budgetary projections on.
And then that early ad success faded. It stands to reason why, of course: Going head to head with Facebook, Google and the largest newspaper websites was always going to be tough, And our staffs (no larger than six doing editorial work) can’t tell the same traffic story as sales folks repping newsrooms 15-20 times that size.
Instead, we looked at all the other ways we’ve been able to grow revenue, and prioritized those internally into three tiers. We stuck display advertising at the very bottom. In other words, we’re happy to get it, but we can’t burn staff time and effort to chase it. We’ve got bigger things in mind.
There are three things in Spirited Media’s most important revenue tier: the first is sponsorships and ticket sales for the events we’ve become so adept at organizing. The second is a membership program we’re rolling out in the coming weeks across all our sites. And the third is offering our custom platform for others to use. Let’s talk briefly about each of them.
Billy Penn launched in October 2014 – I was the site’s editor at the time – and we began hosting the first of our events a few months later. At the time, our staff numbered five people – myself, a community manager and two reporter/curators, and a brand new sales and events director. So, when we decided to start getting our audience together in person, putting together a lot of programming for those events wasn’t realistic. The same people building that event were the ones building our daily news report, after all. So the events (we tried many, but what worked best were happy hour gatherings) were very light on the programming. And when I say “light,” I mean we’d maybe grab a microphone for 20 minutes of a two-hour event.
These events proved incredibly popular with our audience and they had several things that recommended them over intrusive advertising on our site. One, the events lasted for a set amount of time; two, the events could only hold a certain number of people. In other words, we were able to create the scarcity that is nonexistent in a land of infinite Web pages. So events — the smart execution of them, ticket sales to attend them, and sponsors to underwrite them — are one of the pillars in our most crucial revenue tier. And, of course, events (and the potential early access to their tickets, or even their planning) will play in very heavily to the next item on our revenue punch list.
One of the things I consistently heard from Philadelphians as I walked the streets of the city was how much those who read Billy Penn loved it. Not just liked or respected, but connected with in a visceral way. So as we looked at how to build a business model that could withstand the seismic shift rocking the ad-supported media world, we of course considered whether we could turn that loyalty — hell, that love — into monetary support. But we can’t make this happen alone, so we’re working with the News Revenue Hub (Motto: “Fortifying the public’s access to quality journalism by helping news organizations build sustainability”), a spinoff of the stellar digital operation Voice of San Diego, a company that’s helped many newsrooms figure out how to turn their audiences into members. We’ll launch membership across our sites in the next few weeks, directly making a pitch to our readers that the work they’ve been consuming requires their direct support to continue. That’s because, plainly speaking, it does.
We’re proud to be a company that puts our users first. Editorially, that means we pay attention to what we think people want to know. And we’ve also committed to respecting their time and their experience online. That means unlike other news providers’ sites, we don’t pop advertisements up in front of the story you’re trying to read, or force an auto-play video into your quiet office, or load up the top, middle and/or end of your story with some photo you just won’t believe about a 70s TV show star. We try to respect people’s time and their attention.
How’s that working out for us? Well, our research shows that more than half our audience is under age 35, and 75% of our readers are under age 44. That’s a startling figure for a media company, and it’s due in no small part to the way we’ve built our sites, using a custom WordPress theme that gives us what we think are clear advantages in the market:
One, it’s very easy for journalists to write and post their work onto our sites (and, automatically, Facebook Instant Articles, and Google AMP pages). We’ve also baked newsletter functionality into the back-end as well. Because we have very small staffs, there’s no separation between a reporter, an editor and our audience.
Two, our sites make a small amount of content look and feel like a lot. The home pages of Billy Penn and The Incline (and soon Denverite) spotlight the most important stories we’ve published, and then present a list of the most important events and other news stories happening in and around our cities, whether or not we’ve written them, in what we call “The Stream.” It’s basically a Facebook feed of what you need to know at any given moment.
Three, we’ve baked membership tools right into the platform. These pages, and the action funnel on which they’re built — driving occasional readers to become repeat readers, into newsletter subscribers, and into paying members — take advantage of a sea change in how the news industry is realigning itself in the midst of the great advertising breakdown.
And we’re finding that this suite of tools is attractive to other small publishers that are also seeking revenue that’s immune to the whims of Facebook and Google. In fact, we’ve closed one deal with a publisher to provide them the same tools we’re using, and following up on other requests about it that have come over the transom. We’ve seen enough interest, in fact, to prioritize platform sales as part of our most crucial revenue streams in 2018.
Another thing we’ve heard through the course of our existence is that people were interested in starting a “Billy Penn” newsroom in their city, but owned and operated by them. Until now, we have not pursued those arrangements; however, in the course of our reevaluation, we’re willing to explore arrangements like this.
My boss Jim Brady, the former editor-in-chief of Digital First Media, former editor of washingtonpost.com, and a former news executive at AOL, has also consulted at many of the world’s biggest and best media brands — ESPN, USC and The Guardian, among them. Our VP of Product, Brian Boyer, was most recently the Senior Editor for Visuals at NPR; he came there after building the News Apps team at the Chicago Tribune. Me? I’ve been the Executive Online Editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the top digital editor in two of Hollywood’s oldest news institutions, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
Among us, we’ve worked in newsrooms covering local, national and international news; in verticals (sports, entertainment, politics), launched departments and won awards for videos, innovation, public service and more. And we’re finding interest in accessing that expertise among other media companies, which out of necessity have cut their digital workforces down in the face of the ad cataclysm.
So we’re putting out our consulting shingle, and negotiating with those seeking everything from advice in reaching the audience we have now or the audiences we’ve reached in our past. Why isn’t this a Tier One revenue stream? Simply put: bandwidth. While we can hire developers should interest in our platform take over, we can’t easily clone ourselves to grow a consulting arm. But the money we make in this fledgling endeavor can help extend our company’s runway as we push toward profitability.
We’ve already received grants to support our work —we hosted a Knight Foundation fellow for one year in Philadelphia, and are the proud recipients of a $106,000 grant for work on a Playbook for Mobile News. We’re also finalists for a Report for America grant, which would support a Spirited Media reporter working in Pennsylvania’s state capital of Harrisburg. These kinds of efforts can help underwrite important journalism in our cities while easing the burden on our budgets. In addition, a two-year partnership with Politifact funded a reporter position to help us fact-check Pennsylvania, thanks to a grant from the Democracy Fund. So we’re no stranger to grant-funded journalism, and are actively seeking out new ways to bring it into our newsrooms.
Finally, we’re not going to say no to companies that only want to buy space on our sites. But, as we said, it’s just not a great use of our time to sit through endless agency meetings on the off chance that we score the rapidly declining dollars to spare, once Facebook and Google gobble their share. We’re delighted with the roster of repeat advertisers we’ve had across all our sites, of course, and hope to continue working with clients as diverse as the Philadelphia Eagles, Comcast and Beneficial Bank — but, as often as possible, we’re hoping to convert those advertisers into sponsors supporting the events that are increasingly part of the future of our businesses.
We’re confident that future is bright. After all, local news is a lot closer to our users than the national and international sources. We’re down the street, just around the corner from our readers. It’s sobering but heartening to come to the realization, as a company, that those readers are even more directly responsible for our future than we’d first considered. But then again, that makes sense. We’re always telling them how important they are. We’re now giving them the opportunity to prove it.