NTM shares 5 epic fails and the lessons they taught

By Jens Pettersson


Stockholm, Sweden


I must admit, my mind and body tingle just a bit when the yearly e-mail announcing nominations for the INMA Global Media Awards arrives.

Last year, our Swedish local media conglomerate NTM had one nomination and won a first prize for its work on 360 analytics dashboards. This year’s e-mail declared we received a total of five nominations.

“Who cares?” some might think. And others might go on about how these kind of business competitions are only for the businesses themselves or all the experts in editorial development looking for wins to brag about on Linkedin.

That’s one way to see it; another one is to realise that development, and the desire to do things better, is all about pleasing the audience in order for businesses to survive. I, of course, prefer the latter position.

To get there, and get one of those coveted nominations, you need to innovate. And to do that you need to be willing to test stuff and be open to making mistakes.

A couple of weeks ago, me and our CEO Lina Hedenström gave a presentation during the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit study tour in Stockholm. We decided to give the 55 attendees the naked truth on bad stuff we’ve done during the last couple of years.

To grow and develop as a news media company in the present day, NTM took stock of its missteps and found ways to fix them.
To grow and develop as a news media company in the present day, NTM took stock of its missteps and found ways to fix them.

Why did we want to talk about fails?

The media industry has undergone profound change over the last 10 years. We all know that. Customer behaviour changes really fast, and we need to change even faster to stay on top of things.

If we want to be this fast — and also successful — we need to allow ourselves to make mistakes. We need to be brave and be willing to test and try. We need to be a learning organisation and integrate this into our company culture. And we need to dare to do wrong.

In the presentation, we focused on a number of epic fails, but also on the fixes, of course. Here are five of those fails and what we learned along the way.

Failure 1: Paywall mess

In 2017, we started to charge for digital subscriptions on our 19 news sites around Sweden.

First, we introduced a metered model where the site visitors could read a certain number of articles for free before hitting the paywall. We did not have a joint conversation on topics or journalistic strategy. We let every newsroom choose the settings and direction of the newsroom themselves, and some editors chose to open up their most important articles for free.

After the initial launch of the paywall, we saw easy subscription wins by our greatest fans. They started to pay. But the growth eventually slowed, and we got stuck on a plateau. This was not a great strategy for building a digital future.

Fix: It was time to work together. We decided to collaborate within our conglomerate. We set up a joint editorial team at the central level and started to form initiatives together with the subscriptions department.

We started by overseeing pretty much every part of the business of digital subscriptions. This included developing a journalistic strategy, sharpening the names of the different subscription packages, setting up a welcoming and informing series of onboarding e-mails, and having all newsrooms form their own promises to readers.

We also established a clear North Star goal: In three years, we were going to double the number of digital subscribers, from 55,000 to 110,000 in 2023. Our “slogan” for all these initiatives was, “Let’s get ready to double.”

When developing joint journalistic strategies for all newsrooms, we relied on data. We abandoned the metered model and, with the perspective that local journalism has a great value, we implemented a strict paywall. This has been one of many parametres that sped up subscription growth for us. We also agreed on the same KPIs for everyone and built good dashboards for the reporters.

Overall, results are improving by becoming a conglomerate and working together.

Failure 2: Dashboard chaos

Before 2020, we used an external tool for data. It sounds like a terrible idea when considering this today, but we let every newsroom create its own dashboard and KPIs. We even let them establish the system settings themselves. This meant, for example, that the KPI “pageview” could totally different things in different newsrooms. Bad idea.

In 2020, we began building joint dashboards in the external tool we had, which was Web-based and required login credentials for access. So, we still struggled with getting reporters to use the analytics dashboards. There were still too many thresholds to fully become a data-driven organisation.

Fix: In 2021, we convened our tech department to solve the problem. The dashboards have been great and well received by the reporters and editors.

However, it’s important to remember dashboards aren’t worth anything at all if they are not being used. And now we’re considering the possibility of creating a dashboard for measuring the internal use of the analytics dashboards.

Failure 3: Missing the target (group)

In the good ol’ days, editors with excellent gut feelings were the kings of the newsroom. Newsrooms could publish articles in the printed edition and move to the next day. Input from the audience might come in the form of a phone call or, in the worst case, a visit from an upset subscriber.

The problem with listening to lots of gut feelings is you end up doing everything for everyone. In the process, you don’t please anyone. Your staff does what they think is good, and the news product is unfocused. That was our situation for many years.

Fix: To sharpen our journalism, we tried to calibrate our content in 2021.

We were inspired by Norwegian media company Amedia and used our fine data sets to determine the topics that engaged our audience and much we produced on certain topics. Did our work focus match audience interest?

Partially yes, but mainly no. Analytics showed the highest interest in breaking news, restaurants, crime, weather, and real estate. We realised we could and should increase production on many of these topics. We also realised we needed to decrease content in some areas, such as sports, where we were over-producing.

Analysing our existing customers’ behaviour with insights on our 30-50-year-old audience target group gave us a list of seven prioritised topics. To activate newrooms accordingly, we developed checklists for editors and reporters with questions like:

  • Is the topic relevant to many people or does it evoke strong emotions?
  • How do I make it interesting for 30- to 50-year-old people?
  • Who can be seen and heard?
  • How do I capture the front-page readers with this in one second?
  • How do I contribute to the spread of the content?

This was a great start, but we knew we still needed to learn more about our audience.

In autumn 2022, we segmented our audience. We ended up with seven different target groups. Of these, three stood out as the main targets for digital growth in subscriptions:

  • Green graduates, who are well-educated DINKYs (double income, no kids yet) currently creating a grown-up life in cities.
  • Facebooking families with smaller children, living an intensive family life, who are mostly discovering news by social media.
  • Suburban houseowners are a bit older and wealthier. They have teenagers living at home and are travelling the world, but they’re still interested in what’s local happenings.

This project is still in an early phase, but editors have noted it is a relief to know where to focus their efforts. The challenge now is to speed up creativity to deliver smart journalism that satisfies these groups.

Failure 4: Being a coward

If you’re into sports, there is nothing better than experiencing your favourite team live. The next best thing is seeing the game live on a screen.

For some years, NTM tried live sports broadcasting. We bought TV rights by the match. We saw a lot of conversions on these matches, but new customers disappeared quickly.

Being afraid of spending money made our desired live TV efforts fail. But, what if we really dared to invest and bought entire seasons of popular Swedish sports? Could we level up our sports journalism?

Fix: Invest, invest, invest. We bought sports TV rights for longer periods. In some cases, we bought in the highest national division, such as for floorball, a popular Swedish sport.

Last year, we broadcasted 869 matches live. Our analysis show great outcomes on customer lifetime value for regular live sports viewers. We also get a substantial uplift in average revenue per user.

We needed to dare to invest to get the most out of this content.

Failure 5: Always wanting new stuff

Getting tired of old things and always wanting new stuff is a problem.

For example, in 2016, we released a nice Web site called Klackspark (“heel kick”). This soccer-focused vertical was where all soccer journalism (journalistic stories, robot texts on lower divisions, and some live sports TV) in one of our regions was located.

However, we never managed to develop a good business around this. Readers didn’t arrive the way we wanted them to.

We realised it’s not easy to build new brands. The big fail was trying to invent new stuff instead of relying on our original brand.

Fix: The fix is obvious. Stick to the original brand and believe in the power of your legacy. It’s much stronger than you think.

In the case of soccer reporting, we moved the reporting back to our original news brands’ Web sports sections. We displayed the journalism where the readers already were: on the front pages of our news sites.

Being a legacy brand is nothing to be ashamed of. We have built a lot of trust since 1758. We just need confidently believe in it.

These are five mistakes from the last couple of years. We have made so many more, and we will continue to do so. This is the only way to find the true successes when it comes to enhancing user experience and creating more value for our paying subscribers. And, of course, getting accolades and awards for that hard work.

About Jens Pettersson

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