What Causes Subscribers To Pay For Local News?

An Examination of What Content and Behaviors Help Local News Organizations Retain Subscribers

Approximately 20% of all newspapers in the United States have merged or gone out of business in the past 15 years. More than 1,300 communities have totally lost their news coverage.

In an effort to find sustainability — and ultimately growth — local media companies are starting to shift from an advertising-supported business model to one based on subscriptions. However, this shift to subscriptions demands an understanding of what subscribers value most from these companies. To do this, local media executives must know what and when subscribers are reading, across devices, as well as viewing, clicking, opening, and more..

The Medill Spiegel Research Center worked with the Medill Local News Initiative to complete an analysis of local news subscriber behaviors to understand and predict subscriber retention.

What We Found

  1. Frequency of website visits is the most important predictor of subscriber retention.
  2. Page views and time spent on a newspaper’s website are not an accurate predictor of subscriber retention, and in some cases, it even has a negative effect.
  3. Reading differentiated content is associated with retention.
  4. Readers using adblocking software are significantly more likely to stay.

How to Grow Reader Retention in Six Easy Steps

To help local media organizations transition to a subscription-based business model, the Medill Spiegel Research Center created a six-step process to serve as the roadmap for making this shift.

1. Decide Your Desired Financial Outcome

In order to create a major change within your organization, you first have to decide what you are trying to change. For this study, financial outcome can be thought of as digital memberships or subscriptions.

2. Identify Engagement/Reading Behaviors

When it comes to engagement behaviors a subscriber can have with a local news organization, the list can be complex. This is critical in order to make sure you take into account all potential engagement opportunities.

3. Find What Behaviors Drive Your Desired Outcome

Once your list of engagement behaviors is complete, the next step is to analyze which of those behaviors are most responsible for contributing to your desired outcome — in this case, subscriber retention.

4. Understand What Stories Influence the Behaviors

Now that you know what behaviors drive your desired outcome, the next step in the process is to look at what types of stories, story forms and platforms are responsible for influencing those behaviors.

5. Stimulate a Higher Level of Those Stories

With an understanding of the types of stories that lead to the reader behaviors you covet, it is now time to create more content that falls into those same types of stories.

6. Monitor Reading Behaviors and Outcomes

Once stories are added, you must review analytics related to those stories and analyze reader behaviors and outcomes to assess how they are influencing readers and your desired financial outcome.

About the Research

The data for this research was shared in a non-personally identifiable form by 16 Local News Initiative Learning Lab partners, including the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Indianapolis Star. Specific data for each paper will be referenced anonymously in this analysis. Additional data was shared by Gannett, a leading media and marketing company that owns more than 100 media organizations. Roughly two years of subscriber and click-stream reading data from both large-city and small-market organizations were evaluated to identify what behaviors were constant across markets and what actions varied depending on market size.

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