News media companies share their best practices for driving growth

By Ijeoma S. Nwata

INMA

Baltimore, Maryland, United States

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By Sarah Schmidt

INMA

Brooklyn, New York, United States

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Increasing reader revenue means making the most of the latest technology to understand your audience. There is not just one right way to do this, as publishers worldwide have found.

During INMA’s Media Subscriptions Summit, news publishers with varying business models, histories, and audience niches shared what they have learned. 

Mark Campbell, chief marketing officer at Hearst Newspapers, said the 135-year-old company’s impressive growth in legacy local newspaper digital subscriptions is offsetting the decline in print. Digital subscriptions are up across its 24 dailies and 52 weeklies.

“Digital is now a quarter of our revenue and growing,” Campbell said. While this is exciting, it’s also challenging: “That number can’t keep growing at the same pace, so we have to keep innovating.”

Hearst now uses data to create a “subscriber health score” to track and sort subscribers in terms of loyalty and risk. Once Hearst has that information, it collects more data to learn what strategies work best for more and less loyal subscriber profiles. It also experiments to find the most effective time to deploy the strategy. One learning, for instance, is that less engaged subscribers respond well to things like extra e-mails and marketing on Facebook. But those same methods can backfire with more loyal, highly engaged subscribers.

“We saw no increase in retention — and it even went down a little — the lesson being that some subscribers don’t need this, and it might actually annoy them,” Campbell said.

Hearst Newspapers identified which subscribers benefit most from content campaigns.
Hearst Newspapers identified which subscribers benefit most from content campaigns.

Data drives pricing at Hearst

Hearst has also used its audience data to find the “sweet spot” for subscription pricing among different audiences. Identifying and targeting potential subscribers who live in-market has paid off for smaller local news subscriptions.

Moving forward, Hearst will similarly use data to offer dynamic retention pricing, like proactively offering discounts to reduce the risk of subscribers leaving. It is also looking into paywall-free sharing of gift articles, locally customised puzzles from Puzzmo, which the company recently acquired, and newsletter-only subscriptions for certain high-interest niche content via Substack.

NZME leads with journalism

Carolyn Adams, general manager of subscriber revenue for NZME in New Zealand, said the publisher has achieved growth by emphasising its core mission: journalism. With a population of 5 million, New Zealand has two media players. NZME’s flagship publication, the New Zealand Herald, is another legacy print publication founded 160 years ago. NZME offers free and premium content, with 30% behind a paywall. The readership for its free content is crucial for attracting its premium audience. Furthermore, with its biggest competitor offering all of its content free, NZME has differentiated itself with its high-quality journalism.

 “We have to work with the perception that they can read the same thing for free there — and to win, we have to really be able to showcase our journalism,” Adams said. “Journalism is the key for us. If you have a great product, journalism resonates with readers.”

South African publisher Media24 had a similar realisation when rethinking its hybrid subscription model for its News24 digital brand, but in this case, putting even more content behind the paywall was the best approach, said Madelein Venter, the news division’s general manager of marketing and subscriptions. The company increased the content behind the paywall as part of a redesign marketed around the brand’s 25th anniversary. This allowed it to take advantage of positive messaging on high-quality journalism quality while downplaying the change in access, which essentially “flipped” its ratio from 70% free and 30% premium to 70% premium, 30% free. 

Building trust in tough times at Haaretz 

Though no one wishes for war, that is precisely the type of crisis Israel’s Lior Kodner of Haaretz found himself dealing with following the Hamas attack on Israel in October 2023. The chief executive officer of Haaretz’s digital brand admitted that war is brutal, especially considering Israel’s small population. According to Kodner, many people knew at least one of the hostages or someone killed on the day of the attack. Therein lies an opportunity for the country’s oldest newspaper to deliver breaking news about an ongoing war.

Haaretz deployed new offerings to keep readers informed and engaged after the Hamas attack in October.
Haaretz deployed new offerings to keep readers informed and engaged after the Hamas attack in October.

Kodner and his team discovered that the general population was deeply concerned about the aftermath of the initial attack and needed to find and trust a source to consume news. Previous surveys showed subscribers were not reading many articles, and Kodner said Haaretz was not the first, second, or third choice of newspaper. To capitalise on this opportunity and to be “of the moment,” Kodner described the strategies and tactics used to grow subscriptions:

  • Deploying round-the-clock updates on all fronts, providing 24-hour news coverage of the war. 
  • Weekly updates directly from the editor secured 200 new subscribers.
  • Incorporating live segments via Zoom, known as Haaretz Live, in which real-time discussions with reporters allowed readers and guests to ask questions. Thousands registered for these live-streamed events.
  • Personalising the onboarding and requesting feedback from the community. 
  • Updating the cancellation process to reduce subscription cancellations. 
  • Creating content across a branded app, Web site, podcasts, and other channels. 

By developing an ecosystem in which current readers and potential subscribers had accessible breaking news coverage, Haaretz stood out and expanded its reach. Moreover, it retained a high percentage of its new subscribers.

The Irish Times experiments for growth

The Irish Times is a legacy news publication dating back to the mid-1880s. The print newspaper is available six days a week, and the digital site produces 200 daily articles. Cliona Mooney, the group data analytics and insights director at The Irish Times Group, shared that the brand added a digital subscription model in 2015, being the first of its kind in Ireland. 

As a market leader, The Times aimed to attract and grow subscriptions across its channels, including its branded app, social media, and podcasts. 

The Irish Times works across multiple channels to attract and engage audiences.
The Irish Times works across multiple channels to attract and engage audiences.

 

In 2023, the focus was on increasing subscription-only content through promotions, content, platforms, and an evolving paywall model. As Mooney said, the goal is to attract readers, convert them into paid readers, and retain them as long as possible. A large portion of its audience comes from Google and the market is radio-dependent. To meet that need, The Times offers a suite of podcasts.

 Mooney highlighted a few ways to keep subscribers engaged: 

  • Events, with targeted pricing based on locations.
  • Newsletters included offerings dedicated to rugby and personal finance.
  • Surprise and delight via data collection to identify a cohort of subscribers to offer a tote bag, journal, or other branded item to keep their subscription. 

Subscribers receive push notifications that drive them to various products The Times offers.

Much of the newsroom’s business mentality is rooted in experimentation, which has helped make up 20% of subscriber sales. The “test and learn mindset” is based on testing hypotheses, reviewing the data, and implementing changes where necessary. One such experiment involved adding a paywall 24 hours after publication in specific sections such as Life & Style, Education, Travel, and Property. The audience team shortlisted articles that were manually listed as subscriber-only.

There is no additional cost to produce these results and this analytic approach reinforces the point of making data-based decisions about subscriber-only content. These types of experiments and their iterations allow Mooney to gather insights to serve readers better and retain them.

The summit was sponsored by sponsored by AdvantageCSChargebeeChartbeatGoogleFT StrategiesPianoUnited RobotsWordPress VIP, and Zuora.

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