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.