Early May: The initial coronavirus surge was tapering off, reader interest and subscription sales were waning — and our editorial teams were feeling the strain after six weeks of flat-out deliveries.
Early August: Record readership surpassing the early coronavirus heights, record sales, and a fast-growing upwards trajectory on all KPIs.
When COVID-19 hit in late March, Amedia’s 76 newsrooms experienced the same effect as our peers around the world: a tsunami of interest pushed both readership and subscription sales to unprecedented heights. Our journalists worked flat-out and delivered hard news, soft news, and relevance to our readers — mornings, afternoons, evenings, and weekends. Most of them worked from home, which created extra challenges in an extraordinary news cycle. While advertising went into a swan dive, subscription sales headed into overdrive.
Ominously, in late April, the strain of those first, few hectic weeks of March and early April was beginning to show. Readers were getting tired of coronavirus coverage 24/7. Subscription sales went down and readership went down — especially amoung our younger readers.
Also, our editorial staff were understandably tired. It was obvious that we were in this for the long haul. What started out with a sprint pace from sheer necessity was clearly turning into a marathon.
Add to that a ban on sports events, which essentially put our live sports coverage in a deep freeze — along with its potential for customer acquisition and retention.
A series of conversations with our editors in late April confirmed we needed a change of tack.
“The strain of the home office is beginning to tell for our journalists. It’s hard to follow up on them properly,” one said. Another added, “Our biggest challenge is to keep production at a high enough level and to ensure that we perform, despite sales and readership necessarily dropping from the heights of the corona interest.” A third chimed in with, “We have a really hard time being creative and ensuring a proper mix of stories.”
All were very telling observations that were clearly reflected in the data.
A series of Google Meet sessions with the head of editorial development, Eivor Jerpåsen, and more than 100 editors from our newsrooms starting in early May proved pivotal in addressing what was fast turning into a worrying development.
It was obvious the initial pace could not be sustained, and it was obvious we could not expect extra resources to pull us through. So, equally obvious, we had to prioritise our resources for maximum editorial impact.
During the session, Jerpåsen drew up a sketch of all the elements that had a proven track record in attracting younger readers and female readers — precisely those two audience groups we had already singled out as the most important to hit. Indeed, we had significant initial success in the early days of the coronavirus crisis in reaching them, but interest had significantly waned since.
We were losing the sub-40 readers. In essence, our numbers told us they weren’t coming back because we weren’t writing stories that interested them. So we had to address them with more relevant journalism.
The playbook was simple: We needed a better mix of story categories, and we needed to prioritise the storytelling we knew from hard data would work.
Our data showed the most successful newsrooms had a far higher hit rate than their peers on the other end of the spectrum. This was especially true in sports coverage and in coverage of local businesses: a generalised and superficial coverage of those topics was rarely read, while stories that looked at a story’s impact on local people were well read. And if that story included interviews with and cases featuring younger people? Almost always a winner — in all age groups.
This was the concrete list Jerpåsen presented:
- Stop doing story treatments demonstrably not performing.
- Prioritise stories on working life, the economy/local business, public life, living, health, and education.
- Chase personalised cases in all content categories; a generalised treatment rarely works.
- Show faces on the front page. People want to read about people, and those under 40 want to read about people under 40.
- After the initial impact of the virus, people are actually out and about these days. Ensure that journalists don’t get stuck in their home offices.
- Do systematic news research, both on the news desk and with each individual journalist.
- Talk about your best-performing stories: Do you have two winners planned every single day?
The series of seven workshops and the corresponding change of tack yielded remarkable results.
The following graph shows production of well-read stories, what we classify as “impact stories,” in some major categories for the two-week period preceding the coronavirus outbreak (grey), two weeks during the height of the coronavirus lockdown (magenta), and in the two weeks leading up to summer (cyan).
Something had shifted
Interest in the most important categories was up. We also saw a substantial increase in stories with personalised cases — something we knew generated both reader interest as well as sales.
The combined editorial efforts lifted sales from its lowest point in week 18 to a normalised level before we kicked off our summer sales campaign in week 24.
From week 18, we also saw a marked increase in subscribers actually reading subscriber content (our most important editorial KPI) — holding steady before increasing (!) during the summer, and taking off like a rocket come August.
And look at subscribing readers below the age of 40 (cyan line, magenta = 40+). They’re back!
Also, we’ve retained interest among female subscribing readers (in magenta).
That’s the tally for subscription sales during the summer. We now have more digital subscribers than print subscribers. We passed the milestone in late July, and we now have a 51% digital share. Our readership is now, quite literally, larger than it has been at any point in history. And the interest is still growing.