Boston Globe, De Telegraaf, and Helsingin Sanomat share COVID gains

By Grzegorz Piechota

INMA

Oxford, United Kingdom

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Hi! This is Readers First, a newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue innovation. I’m researcher-in-residence at INMA. E-mail me at: grzegorz.piechota@inma.org 

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1. COVID BUMP: The spike in online subscriptions helps The Boston Globe make a giant leap in digital transformation

The Boston Globe in the United States, as many publishers around the world, enjoyed a significant COVID bump in subscriptions. Reportedly, it grew the digital subscriber base from about 145,000 just before the pandemic to nearly 205,000 in early May.

“It took us seven years to get our first 100,000 digital-only subscribers and about 11 months to get to 200,000," said editor Brian McGrory at a video conference with his peers in New England. 

The Globe’s editor added: “The rise has been substantial, gratifying, and important in terms of supporting our journalism. We're the only metro paper that could support the current size of its newsroom through revenue from digital subscribers."

The Globe did not unlock its COVID coverage for free, unlike other U.S. publishers, and offered a cheap trial subscription instead, similarly to many European publishers.

Last week, based on Piano data of 295 paywalled news sites in the United States and in Europe, the sales of digital subscriptions were still significantly higher than before the pandemic.

The goal of 200,000 was a long-sought one for The Globe, as internal modelling showed this number of customers would sustain the company even if it went digital-only. 

The model developed in 2017 by then Chief Revenue Officer Pete Doucette (now a consultant at FTI) considered a 2x multiple of the newsroom budget to estimate the digital subscription revenue required to achieve long-term sustainability. 

At the time, The Globe’s annual newsroom budget stood at US$35 million, and annual digital revenue from both ads and subscriptions was US$40 million, or 14% of total revenue. And 200,000 digital subscribers, if retained at a full price, would bring US$70 million a year in recurring revenue and ads.

The Globe has a shrinking, yet still significant, print business and no declared plans to shut it down anytime soon. Reportedly, the weekday print circulation is under 85,000 and Sunday print is about 147,000.

A unique feature of The Globe’s success is premium pricing. After a generous trial of US$1 for the first 26 weeks, or six months, it charges US$27.72 for every four weeks of digital subscription. 

It’s 3.5 times more than The New York Times charged for the basic news package in mid-May, and 11 times more than The Washington Post charged!

Of course, Boston is a unique market. It’s the fifth-wealthiest city in the United States by household income. The 10th best-educated city in the United States by proportion of adults with a college degree. It is home to Harvard and MIT, as well as lively tech and social sciences industries.

Unlike many other metropolitan dailies in the United States, since 2013 The Globe has enjoyed rare stability and focus in the hands a billionaire John Henry, a principal owner of famous sports clubs such as FC Liverpool and the Boston Red Sox.

Northeastern University’s Dan Kennedy explored the benefits of the committed ownership of wealthy individuals in his insightful 2018 book, The Return of the Moguls. A renaissance of The Globe was a prime example.

What the news subscription leaders — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Washington Post — have in common is a strategic focus and a runway of time and money. Is not it what news media need most to make a breakthrough in digital transformation?

Want to share a story of your bump? What have you learned about your readers, your brand, and yourself? E-mail me at: grzegorz.piechota@inma.org

2. VALUE NURTURING: What happened when the Netherland’s De Telegraaf asked every reader to subscribe

Since mid-April, every visitor to news sites of Mediahuis has seen a call to subscribe if they wish to support independent journalism. The experiment is code-named “soft paywall.” 

De Telegraaf, a popular newspaper in Amsterdam, launched its paywall in 2018. The brand enjoys 390,000 subscribers, of which 16% are digital-only.

Originally, it featured a hybrid of a freemium and a metered model, but it’s freemium-only now.

  • The challenge of soft paywalls is that many visitors are not exposed to subscription offers, and some might not be even aware of a paywall.

  • According to Piano, 67% of visitors to an average news subscription site do so only once a month, so in practice they never get stopped by meter paywalls and rarely hit hard-paywalled premium articles.

  • On average, paywalls in the United States and Europe stop only about 13% of visitors, on average, and this rate very much influences how many become subscribers (less than 1% of those exposed to offers).

The 2020 pandemic inspired a slight change in the Mediahuis model: to expose all visitors to the offers, even those who visit just once or for free articles.

“The COVID-19 crisis underlined the importance of reliable information and independent journalism within the society,” said Riske Betten, digital manager at Mediahuis Nederland, in an interview with INMA. “We therefore thought it would be appropriate to state how much passion we fulfill this role with and that subscribers are of key to sustain independent journalism.”

On April 16, De Telegraaf and five regional brands of Mediahuis Nederland added an editorially driven message below all free articles. The tactic reminds the calls to action by the membership-focused Guardian in the UK, although the offer here still is a subscription and not a donation.

The message doesn’t talk about usual benefits such as apps or podcasts but the newspaper’s purpose and its journalism:

“Since you’re here ... As the world is in the grip of the coronavirus, the need for information is increasing. Reliable information, accessible and clearly laid out. Separating facts from rumours. The Telegraaf’s editorial team of more than 200 journalists works day and night to inform you as well as possible about the developments at home and abroad. We explain what the coronavirus crisis means for you. We tell you what actions the government is taking, but also where the shoe pinches. We capture the mood of the nation, write about heroes in our care, show common sense, or lack thereof. We report hope, small and large, for better times. The subscription starts from 1.04 euro per week.”

A week later, the Mediahuis Nederland brands introduced dismissible floor ads displayed to all visitors of the home pages of its Web sites and apps.

Again, the message is very much editorially driven. An example: “However uncertain these times may be, we continue to do our work. De Telegraaf’s editorial team of more than 200 journalists works day and night to inform you as well as possible about the developments at home and abroad …”

Riske’s team is experimenting with different wording.

  • The one displayed on the desktop Web lays out the hard benefits of the subscription: “As a subscriber to De Telegraaf, you have full access to our best videos, podcasts, and articles, and you contribute to independent journalism.”

  • Another one, displayed on mobile phones, mentions that “thousands have already subscribed.”

The floor ads are displayed on the readers’ first visit on a particular day.

The first results are very encouraging: De Telegraaf seems to have extended its COVID bump in subscriptions through the end of April.

  • In the first week of the experiment, it observed a boost in conversions from in-article ads. Based on my calculations, the average share for the in-article ad conversions from April 17 to April 30 was 14%.

  • In the second week, the conversions from home page floor ads spiked. The average share for the floor ad conversions from April 24 to April 30 was 21%.

  • In general, the new ads worked brilliantly. Their combined share in all conversions was 24% with a maximum of 45% on one day.

Have a story to share? Or a challenge that puzzles you? Talk to your INMA peers. E-mail: grzegorz.piechota@inma.org.

3. CONTENT: How Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat automated its COVID-19 updates

Right after noon on Sunday, April 19, a reporter got furious and complained on Twitter: “I wonder how come [Helsingin Sanomat] has the latest coronavirus infection rates every day about an hour earlier than other media?”

As many others in Finland, the reporter in Turku waited for the daily data release by the National Institute for Health and then, again, she discovered the newspaper in Helsinki had already published the news. She gasped: “What about equal treatment of media?”

The answer was nothing she expected. There was no conspiracy. The article, as revealed by Esa Mäkinen, managing editor of Helsingin Sanomat, was written by a robot. 

The robot’s name is Latoja, or Typesetter. That Sunday morning, it patiently checked every minute whether any new data was available on the government Web site. The robot retrieved the figures via API, even before the government published its own charts — the source for human reporters. 

Latoja drafted an article in a few seconds, updated the charts, and then alerted its editors via Slack. “A human decides whether to publish the article immediately as it is,” explained Päivi Ala-Risku, a data journalist, in an interview with INMA. “The editor can also rewrite the draft, add some information or analysis, and publish a few minutes later.”

The robot is as good as the data it digests. In Finland, the government releases updates on the pandemic twice a day. As the morning release is shared via API, Latoja is fast and reliable.

Unfortunately, the afternoon update is published in a form of a table that sometimes changes its layout. Latoja scrapes the Web site, but silly mistakes are possible, and humans need to check after the robot.

Päivi graduated from Columbia University in New York, where she studied data journalism. A year ago, she joined the Sanomat’s data desk of 15 journalists, of which four are coders. Latoja is their baby. Five people were involved in setting up and maintaining the COVID automated coverage.

Päivi is not worried automation will ever replace human journalists: “Robots take mundane tasks, such as refreshing the government Web site’s page or copying and pasting numbers. Automation frees time of our journalists so they can focus on more meaningful reporting and analysis.”

Some routine reports scramble for automation. Latoja updates readers in seven cities of Finland with weather forecasts. Before the pandemic, it also recommended events daily, but it has not noticed the lockdown and needed to be turned off. “The truth is, if there were no robots, we would have no time to write those articles every day.”

In Päivi’s opinion, robots work best when they prepare parts of articles, such as paragraphs with updated statistics or charts. This is exactly what another robot does at Sanomat — it scans the editorial system for assigned stories and then tips journalists about charts to illustrate the topic. 

It’s up to humans whether they press the button.

Have you had any close encounters of the robot kind? Share your experiences in automation with the INMA peers. E-mail me: grzegorz.piechota@inma.org.

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota, Researcher-In-Residence at INMA, based in Oxford, England. Here I share results of my original research, notes from interviews with news publishers, reflections on my readings. Previous editions are archived online.

This newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail me at grzegorz.piechota@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

Banner photo courtesy of PhotoMIX by Pixabay.

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