Tribune, Advance Local share their best practices for boosting subscriptions

By Brie Logsdon


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States


The past couple of years have been exciting for Tribune, said Idalmy Carrera-Colucci, the company’s senior director of editorial operations. Tribune saw 180% growth in digital-only revenue and 94% growth in digital-only subscribers between 2017 and 2019.

Unlike Tribune and some of the other companies that spoke during the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit , Advance Local is early in its subscriptions journey, according to Lamar Graham, vice president of content for digital consumer revenue.

“If they’re mature, we’re sort of the toddlers at this,” he said. “This is for those just starting. Digital consumer revenue was not a glimmer in our eyes until mid-, late-2018.”

Carrera-Colucci and Graham shared best practices in conditioning audiences to subscribe during the weeklong INMA event in New York.

Tribune Publishing engages its newsroom

To continue its growth, Carrera-Colucci said it’s about engaging audiences and there is one crucial strategy to do so: “To really engage our best and most loyal audience, you need to engage the newsroom.”

Publishers must engage the newsroom around subscription-driving efforts, Idalmy Carrera-Colucci said.
Publishers must engage the newsroom around subscription-driving efforts, Idalmy Carrera-Colucci said.

Tribune began this effort in earnest in 2019, she added, and the focus on audience has been a good opportunity to align the priorities of the whole company. Setting newsroom subscription priorities had to be done in a way that resonated with the team.

Instead of trying to get the newsrooms excited about page views, Tribune emphasised the importance of communicating to audiences the value of being a subscriber. Newsrooms understand that producing journalism is resource- and time-intensive, Carrera-Colucci said, and newsrooms have actually started taking charge of new subscription-driving tactics.

New tactics drive digital engagement

With a goal of driving subscriber frequency and engagement across all platforms, including the e-newspaper, app, and on social media, the Chicago Tribune published how-to stories that explained how customers can get the most out of their subscriptions. This idea came from the newsroom, and that piece was dropped into a company-wide Slack group and inspired other titles to run similar articles.

In another example, Tribune asked newsrooms for ideas to grow their e-mail lists. One audience director in a small market knew exactly what to do: start a contest among readers to suggest the best pizza place. This effort added 4,000 e-mails to the database, and has since been replicated in other markets.

Beyond new initiatives and tactics that can apply across markets, it has been important to empower newsrooms and journalists to make data-informed decisions on a company-wide level.

“You can’t just say, ‘Hey do stuff for our subscriptions,’ without giving them the tools to measure that,” Carrera-Colucci said.

Tribune has deployed Metrics for News in partnership with the American Press Institute that helps set newsroom priorities to align subscriber growth and engagement. Content, topics, and teams are scored around four priorities: total reach, user engagement, new subscribers, and subscriber retention. The priorities are not weighted in order of any specific importance, Carrera-Colucci said.

“We kind of reshuffle what’s important depending on which goal we’re looking at,” she said.

Each journalist has access to a personlised dashboard, where they can access a historical view of performance and see how content is scoring against the four priorities. The goal of this is for each journalist to improve the work they are doing, Carrera-Colucci said, emphasising that it is not intended to be competitive, but is instead a personal growth tool.

Giving an example, she turned to Tribune’s Hartford newsroom. It provides extensive basketball coverage that subscribers really care about and attracts a wide audience. Reporters can see what stories are ranking best and filter the rankings. Analysis showed that stories with live blog play-by-play content underperforms.

“They do a good number of these game stories in a year, they take a lot of time, they need to have someone in the newsroom all set up,” she said. “They’re going to stop doing it.”

Looking forward, Tribune is going to continue expanding the efforts of engaging newsrooms.

“We want to continue to create an opportunity for journalists to give feedback,” she said.

Advance Local shares lessons from early days 

Advance’s local newsrooms have had a lot of autonomy, Graham said, though the company is not trying to build a more overarching structure.

“Execution has always been really local in our markets because they’re all different, and they all think they’re different,” he said.

Advance Local is testing its subscription offering in smaller, isolated markets before rolling it out across the company, Lamar Graham said.
Advance Local is testing its subscription offering in smaller, isolated markets before rolling it out across the company, Lamar Graham said.

Advance has introduced a subscriptions model to two smaller markets so the company can do the majority of testing and learning there. Graham shared four big lessons learned from this early effort.

  1. We have to retain our audiences. “We can’t just spring a subscription model on them.”
  2. What we are asking people to pay for is access. “Nobody is going to put value on our content unless we do. It’s the original, unique local news that our readers cannot get anywhere else and our readers will pay for that.”
  3. Our product is our journalism. “We have to emphasise this.”
  4. Frequency is our North Star. “Nobody is going to become a subscriber unless we are a habit in their lives.”

10 takeaways for the journey 

Graham then shared 10 best practices for others starting their subscriptions journey now.

  1. Learn first, then scale. “We learned that we had a lot to learn.” Advance’s marketing and content strategy needed refinement, he said. There was a lot of friction in the checkout process and the company did not want to roll that out to the rest of the country.
  2. Groom your market for a minimum of 90 days before asking for the first credit card number. Referencing media consultant Yasmin Namini’s advice to never start with a dynamic meter, Graham said Advance did just that. It has been a learning experience, he added. “We also found that there were a whole lot of people in the high propensity segment that were willing to pay us.”
  3. Develop marketing campaigns that communicate the subscription value proposition. “They run everywhere we can think of to encourage people to understand the value of original, unique news,” he said.
  4. Activate your print audience. “One of the parts of the priming the market campaign is to activate these print customers,” he said.
  5. Newsletters are meant to be free. “We cooked up a whole suite of subscription-exclusive emails,” he said. “They’ve always had newsletters, now they’ve got a reason; it’s about driving frequency and emphasising the value proposition.”
  6. Optimise your content mix for subscribers. Graham said the company wondered if readers read crime content because they produce a lot of it, or because they want it. Advance built an algorithm to do a content audit, and found crime and food were overperforming. It also discovered that retail coverage has appeal, and put core people on the beat. “I would encourage you guys to look at what you’re doing now and optimise that for a subscription audience.”
  7. Develop a premium-content strategy. “We think that the purpose of subscription-exclusive content is to shorten the customer journey.”
  8. Spin up gateway products. Advance decided people accessing Penn State sports content were not interested in local news because they did not live in town, so the team created gateway products. “We’ve seen that take off because there’s a huge audience for that stuff. Virtually all Penn State football content is behind the paywall and it converts higher than anything else.” Advance also started a text-messaging service. “We have products where football freaks get texts all day long.” The product has seen enormous engagement, and it ties in well with podcasts because if listeners want to ask a question, they need to subscribe to the text service.
  9. Fill the top of the funnel. “We ran through our audience like a woodchipper in the beginning.” Advance created a special team to find new audiences, he said.
  10. Focus on newsroom culture. “You gotta have a champion in every newsroom that you are spreading this to.”

Culture, Graham emphasised, is crucial: “We’ve never been good at playing together, but now we’re getting good at playing together because it’s the only way we can expand our strategy.”

About Brie Logsdon

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