2019 Key Executives Mega-Conference

Taking readers for a swim in a revenue stream


There were times during last month’s Mega-Conference in Las Vegas when you might have thought you’d stumbled into a Society of Professional Journalists meeting.

Editors led a session on newsroom culture. Academics brought research on trustworthy journalism. A newspaper’s chief technology officer talked about how his job was to free up journalists so they could do what they do best. Thinking about starting up a magazine in print or making special sections that attract larger audiences? There were sessions and product demonstrations for that.

Look a little deeper into all those sessions, though, and one theme becomes clear: How to get more revenue from readers.

The newsroom culture session was about getting journalists to think more like publishers and help drive digital subscriptions. The CTO talked about testing and changing headlines and story “variants” based on click-through rates. The magazine and special section session concentrated on creating content people will pay for.

This was a Mega-Conference that repeatedly concerned itself with the “subscription economy” as it’s being called these days.

“Our content is valuable and people will pay for it,” declared Curtis Huber, The Seattle Times senior director of circulation and audience research. “More and more people are paying for digital. Millennials are paying for it because they understand that it is valuable and important to the future of democracy.”

Besides, speakers emphasized repeatedly, everyone’s become more comfortable with subscribing for content, whether it’s Netflix for movies or Spotify for music or any number of clothing services that send out boxes monthly.

Much of the work of getting people to pay for content starts in the newsroom. The Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative—also known as the “Table Stakes” project, referencing the gambling rule about betting the amount on the table when cards are dealt—is the most visible face of efforts to involve the newsroom in revenue generation.

“The question is, how to start to focus the newsroom on building the valued and valuable audience for which you have a sustainable competitive advantage,” Ken Herts, the director of operations for the project’s sponsor, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. “There’s a lot the newsroom can do to get the valuable and loyal audience as opposed to the one-time drive-bys.”

Eight metro dailies have already gone through the Lenfest project, and there have been some success stories. The Boston Globe now has 100,000 digital subscribers producing $25 million in revenue, Herts noted, “and that can sustain a newsroom.”

For the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the most important learning from the project was that it could actually grow digital subscriptions, said Editor George Stanley.

The newspaper’s audience had been flat and even a little down since its paywall was erected 10 years ago. “The fact is our brand name may be well-known but our products aren’t necessarily,” Stanley said.

The Journal Sentinel made some content changes, instituting new beats and eliminating coverage that’s already available through wire services. It’s working, Stanley said. One example: A new beat on fitness and outdoor activities attracted Subaru auto dealers “who thought they’d never attract 20-somethings with print.” Now: “You can’t go to a canoe launch or camp in Wisconsin without seeing two or three Subarus.”

“When The New York Times got more revenue from readers, pundits said, sure, that might work for national publications but it won’t for local newspapers. That turned out to be untrue,” he said.

That proved to be the case even for the much smaller Durango Herald, said Senior Editor Amy Maestas, who worried at the beginning of their Table Stakes project that “we didn’t have the resources to participate as a small family-owned paper in Colorado.”

But they met their goals for the 10-month project, doubling digital subscriptions, doubling digital registrations, and increasing print subscriptions by 20%. Year over year pageviews increased 11% and visitors by 18%. Maestas said $250,000 in revenue could be attributed to gains realized during the project.

“You can find a foundation for a sound financial basis,” the Journal Sentinel’s Stanley said. “Instead of cost centers, newsrooms start to look like value propositions.”

And, really, in the digital media space, what’s the alternative, Lenfest Institute’s Herts suggested. “When it comes to digital ad revenue, you all know Facebook and Google won.”

It’s Scot Gillespie’s job to ensure that The Washington Post’s newsroom can perform with the speed and analytics of Facebook or Google. When a journalists writes something, for example, it has to be published on all the platforms available to the Post within 60 seconds. The newspaper created Bandito, which allows “a dynamic optimization of variants (responding to) real-time user engagement,” the chief technology officer said.

“A culture of experimentation, of taking risk, of being okay with failing, is a tough one to get across in traditional newspapers. So we had to make it easy,” Gillespie said.

While previously any change, to a headline or copy, had to involve a developer, now the newsroom can make those changes. And there are plenty of changes. Any headline and any story can have multiple variants—more ads, fewer ads, different emphasis—with changes coming automatically based on click-through rates.

“At one point we had article with 13 variants—ad-heavy, ad-light, and more—to test engagement,” Gillespie said. “We test every day. We test on the paywall, with the goal of driving subscriptions. We work directly with Facebook to help them build their paywall subscriptions. We were the first to work with Google for propensity-to-subscribe.”

There’s a relentless focus on speed to publish and speed to market, Gillespie said, and to put the reader and user experience front and center.

“We make sure we can capitalize on the subscription experience,” he said.

Throughout the Mega-Conference, both newsroom executives and the people who weaponize their content for optimal engagement and revenue potential were at pains to say that this process wasn’t degrading journalism.

“Philosophically, we are not in conflict,” said Curtis Huber, The Seattle Times circulation and audience revenue executive. “They don’t want click-bait. We don’t want click-bait. They recognize the importance of the mission. We recognize the importance of the mission.”