The future of local news is perhaps not all doom and gloom. Publishers have a wide range of tools at their fingertips to build news products around the wants and needs of their readers.
In a podcast with Journalism.co.uk, executive director of Spiegel Tom Collinger, research director for Spiegel Edward Malthouse, and senior associate dean of Medill Tim Franklin discussed what they have discovered at the half-way stage of the Medill Local News Initiative, a two-year, $1 million research and development project in the US.
What makes the initiative significant is its use of real-world data. The project runs in partnership with various local news publishers, including the Chicago Tribune, the Indianapolis Star and the San Francisco Chronicle. This shared data has already helped to inform research and key trends in the US local news market. What have they learned so far?
Page views are not everything
Whilst page views are good in terms of generating advertising revenue, the reality is that not all page views are effective in generating subscriptions.
"The most important predictor of whether someone will remain a subscriber is whether you have a reading habit. If you’re not reading it very often, you’re probably going to cancel, but if you’re deriving value from it, you’re going to remain a subscriber," Malthouse said.
Some page views can actually have an adverse effect on a publication and cause churn, particularly commoditised content - readers rightly question why they are paying for content which is available elsewhere for free. Prioritising exclusive, original local stories is therefore key.
Medill's @SpiegelResearch is conducting groundbreaking analysis of subscriber behavior to help news outlets make smart decisions. Here are 5 short videos by Research Director Ed Malthouse. https://t.co/JiY5Wpkqyx— Medill Local News Initiative (@LocalNewsIni) February 12, 2020
Franklin echoed this view and said that page views for local news organisations have for a long time been 'one and dones'. People who come to a webpage via Google or social media do not stick around for long, so publishers need to think carefully about serving the skim-readers as well as their loyal followers.
User experiences matter - a lot
A newsroom may be producing great content on a regular basis, but this can be meaningless if the user experience is flawed. In a world of Netflix and Spotify with ad-free subscription services, users expect similarly streamlined performances when it comes to news content.
Audiences are generally unwilling to sit through a bombardment of ads, use poorly performing apps or get caught up in autoplaying videos. The reverse is also true, in that people who use ad-blockers are more likely to remain subscribers.
"One of the news organisations of the 16 we've looked at has a rough mobile app, and we’ve found that the user experience is so bad that it’s causing people to churn. You’ve got to pay attention to user experience these days," Franklin explained.
Not all readers are the same
The e-commerce world, Collinger said, has been paying attention to, and reaping the rewards, of personalisation for years. A blanket product will leave many audiences neglected, but an individualised approach will have greater appeal. News products need to be created with that in mind.
"This is fundamental, this is a real, big sea change," said Collinger.
"For enterprises to first know it, then know, not generally, but quite specifically, how that particular segment operates with different interests and behaviours and serve them differently to their benefit - that’s quite a fundamental, enormous change for the news business."
Capitalise on your audiences' interests
The sheer importance of developing reader habits in a digital world is a "universal truth", according to Malthouse. Building news products around those highly sought-out topics is one of the first steps. There are then opportunities to introduce news products which take full advantage of that appetite.
"In the example of [ the Indianapolis Star], if you know you have got an uncommonly loyal and rabid high school basketball audience, it's not just about keeping up doing that work, but you might find other opportunities that are of great interest to that audience," explained Collinger.
"Maybe there are breaking news apps that they would be happy to pay a micropayment for, or giving them access to things you wouldn't otherwise think about."
Newsletters are key for building habit
Regularity is key for habit building. One of the best tools for the job are newsletters. Franklin said it allows news publishers to get in front of readers every day in a simple format and come to develop an expectancy for.
The Chicago Tribune offers an example to follow. Its local American football team, the Chicago Bears, is a key interest in the city. The publication decided to capitalise on that interest by launching a subscriber-only newsletter to provide in-depth and behind-the-scenes information. As a result, the open rate jumped from the mid-30s to as high as 70 per cent.
"Newsletters are perhaps the single most effective tactic in building that reader habit. It’s this friend that shows up in your inbox every morning and if it’s curated well can get you back to that local news organisation’s website," Franklin said.
In addition, The Chicago Tribune has also experimented in converting 'Bears' fans from outside of Chicago into paid subscribers whilst still ensuring the local community still has access to free content, through a ‘dynamic paywall’.
These creative ways of growing subscriptions demonstrate that there are still ways that local news organisations can survive and thrive. However, this willingness to experiment needs to be adopted more widely, with Franklin describing the next three to five years as pivotal for the future of local journalism.
"When we started this project, things were looking rough, and they still are for many news organisations, but I have to say I’m more encouraged now."
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