Growing digital subscriptions requires focus on the right audiences, content
World Congress Blog | 18 May 2021
As news media companies continue to shift to a reader revenue business model, they are looking at factors that touch most departments within the company.
During the Brainsnacks session of INMA World Congress of News Media on Tuesday, Gannett shared the details of a newsroom in Rochester, New York, that shifted the its content to reflect — and attract — minority readers. South of the equator, Folha de S.Paulo touted its content, shaped by data, as its path to increase digital subscriptions.
Gannett (United States)
Even before racial unrest erupted in the United States in 2020, Gannett’s Democrat and Chronicle was addressing inequalities in its coverage. That shift allowed the media company to change its relationship with minority communities and gain their trust — something that was pivotal in the tumultuous months to come.
In 2019, Cynthia Benjamin, director of audience engagement and trust for Gannett, noticed the company’s coverage skewed toward older, white readers and was largely disconnected from people of colour.
“As part of the print newspaper team working nights and weekends, I noticed fewer and fewer stories coming through that looked like me — from my community, my gender, my side of town,” she said. “Just everything about me — I saw less and less of that.”
She reached out to Michael Killian, the newspaper’s executive editor, and that led to a diversity and inclusion initiative that changed the company’s coverage and focus.
The newsroom “didn’t just say we’re going to do better at this, they said, ‘Here’s how much better we’re going to be’,” said Alesha Williams Boyd, senior digital director for Gannett. Specific goals and measurements were put into place, with a stretch goal that, by the end of 2019, 40% of the content would target topics underserved audiences were looking for.
The team also set a goal to build digital subscriptions in nine diverse ZIP codes by the year’s end.
In addition to growing diverse content, subscriptions in the nine targeted ZIP codes growing faster than the newspaper’s overall subscription growth rate. Today, the Democrat and Chronicle has reached 52% of its goal to gain 2,250 digital subscriptions in those areas.
Folha de S.Paulo (Brazil)
There is one key factor in Folha de S.Paulo’s growth, Digital Editor Camila Marques told INMA members: a focus on digital subscriptions.
Folha was the first newspaper in Brazil to put up a paywall, in 2012, and today has the largest digital subscriber base in the country, with 200,000. Marques said most of those come from the paywall, and that is driven by great content — which in turn drives engagement, which drives more subscriptions.
Folha has never lost its focus on top-quality journalism content.
“We believe that we are the most important newspaper in Brazil nowadays because of this,” Marques said. “Scoops and better content not only bring views and new readers, but also convert subscribers. And reader engagement is the key.”
She clarified that this does not necessarily mean heavy personalisation but rather segment optimisation.
“We are obsessive about data — understanding what the reader wants, their preferred types of content, and what they are reading. In order to achieve that, you must teach the newsroom that words such as pageviews, unique visitors, time spent, and recirculation are not to be feared.”
In Brazil, the current government promotes constant attacks on journalism and democracy, specifically targeting Folha, Marques said. In response, the news organisation created online courses about Brazilian dictatorship and promoted television campaigns. These are free for everyone, not just Folha subscribers.
Although this was about democracy and the importance of journalism, subscriptions grew as a result. The initiative has more than one million engaged students, Marques said: “As a result, our subscriptions have really, really bumped.”
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