In 2021, Advance Local launched Story Lab, a start-up-style incubator for newsroom innovation. Its goals were to accelerate the pace of subscription sales in 10 diverse U.S. markets and nurture a new culture of editorial experimentation across the company.
Through unprecedented collaboration across newsrooms — plus enterprise support in the forms of research, marketing, development, and financing — Story Lab outstripped expectations, leading to significant sales increases in high school sports, data journalism, and weather coverage, and set new expectations for 2022 and beyond.
Advance Local had been selling newspaper subscriptions for more than a century when its newsrooms made the seismic shift, a decade ago, to digital-first operations. Our journalists quickly developed strategies for ensuring that our ad-supported Web sites were the most widely read in their markets.
Then, in 2020, the company inaugurated a new, hybrid business model: advertising and subscriptions. Suddenly, our newsrooms needed not only to attract large audiences but also to convince loyal readers to pay. This was entirely new territory.
Enter Story Lab.
Discoveries through data
Throughout the year, a cadre of hand-picked reporters and editors from each Advance Local newsroom — plus reps from corporate marketing, product, and analytics — met twice monthly via Microsoft Teams to design locally executed experiments from which all markets might benefit. We created a dedicated Teams channel to continue conversations. Ultimately, we hired a full-time project manager with a background in journalism.
Three projects underline Story Lab’s achievements last year:
- In fall 2020, we identified three types of high school sports content that converted exceptionally well. In fall 2021, Story Lab invested US$120,000 in season previews, player rankings, and all-star teams in eight markets. This strategy generated 6,400 subscriptions — 15% above expectations.
- Story Lab supported experiments in Oregon and New Jersey to increase the frequency of data-oriented reporting about hot-button local issues such as homelessness and pandemic-inspired real-estate trends. Conversion rates were 5x-8x the norm. We’ve now hired four more data reporters. The message to our journalists: Editorial success drives newsroom investment.
- Bad weather is a big audience driver. In February 2021, Story Lab worked with a meteorological research firm to develop a simple snow forecast map that allowed readers to zoom down to a two-mile radius of their homes. In a test in just two markets over two snowy weekends, it sold 150 subscriptions. This winter, Story Lab invested US$13,000 in a higher-fidelity map.
In 2021, Story Lab taught Advance Local newsrooms the value of collaborative experimentation. In 2022, we hope to put more structure around the initiative by:
- Establishing a more formal process for evaluating proposals.
- Building a more stable project pipeline.
- Developing common milestones — from incubation through development and experimentation — to help us better judge success.
We’re excited about the projects currently on our agenda:
- In Massachusetts, we’re collaborating with the Swedish firm United Robots, using AI to turn structured data about home sales into stories.
- In upstate New York, northeastern Ohio, and central Pennsylvania we’re testing a data-visualisation platform called Dataherald in hopes of producing more data journalism more frequently.
- In central Pennsylvania, we’re also live-streaming high school sports matches using iPads.
- In six U.S. markets, we’ve invested in the high school prom season — both in photographing young couples and in developing a tool that allows proud parents to download print-quality photos … if they subscribe.
- In New Jersey, we’re researching how we might better serve LGBTQ audiences.
- On the horizon: Food, pets, marijuana, puzzles, and more.
Story Lab is a work in progress. Finding the bandwidth for experimentation — while adjusting to remote work, responding to the local impacts of a global pandemic, and covering hometown eruptions of national social unrest — hasn’t been easy.
We hope that as the world, our markets, and our journalists return to whatever the new normal is, we’ll see even more opportunities to create premium experiences for our readers.