Metro newspapers face a dilemma: Even as industry-wide trends show print readership and print revenue declining, many organizations still earn a significant amount from their print businesses. That leads to a key question: How can you prepare for a digital future if your current revenue model is still reliant on print?
These priorities don’t always have to be at odds with one another, according to David Skok. Skok is the CEO and editor-in-chief of The Logic, a news site he founded in 2018 to cover Canada’s tech and innovation sectors. He also has experience at legacy local news outlets, having previously held leadership roles at The Toronto Star and The Boston Globe.
In a conversation with the Beyond Print cohort, he shared how print revenue can provide a runway for digital transformation, giving organizations time to grow their digital subscriber base and to build staff buy-in as they proceed with their transition.
The Beyond Print program, led by the American Press Institute and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, aims to guide four participating news organizations through their shift toward digital.
Beyond Print is supported with an anchor donation by the Andrew and Julie Klingenstein Family Fund with additional funding from The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, a joint initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
When trying to convert readers to digital subscribers, be flexible in your approach
There is no “one-size fits all” approach to increasing your organization’s digital subscriber base, whether you’re trying to convert print readers to digital ones or digital readers to paying supporters, Skok said
At The Logic, Skok and his team rely on email as a cheap and highly effective tool to turn readers into subscribers. But conversion requires discipline and patience, and Skok advised news organizations not to give content away easily.
Rather than offer a few free articles before hitting a paywall, Skok suggested that organizations might instead require users to input their email before reading any article. The Logic’s homepage doesn’t show top stories, but is more of a marketing tool that requires an email to proceed.
Skok said this strategy may be difficult to implement for public-service news organizations, but recommended it for outlets currently serving or looking to develop coverage or products for a targeted audience. Additionally, asking readers to share their email address to access a story can be a way to broaden access for coverage that would typically be available to subscribers only.
The emails collected through these methods can be used for a traditional newsletter or marketing campaign, but can also be used to cater better to readers’ interests, and ultimately help convert them into paying subscribers. Since readers have provided their email address, The Logic can keep track of what topics individual readers are interested in and send additional articles related to that topic, which can be paired with a discounted subscription offer.
“Once we have an email, it can take upwards of eight or nine months for us to convert them into paying subscribers, so that’s not uncommon if you’re seeing that kind of long-term funnel development,” Skok said.
Many news organizations are working to persuade print readers to begin accessing news digitally, and although some might eventually shift online, Skok said it is likely that a portion will want the experience of reading in print only. That creates an opportunity for news organizations to experiment with higher pricing, since these readers view print newspapers as essential to their lives.
“If we’re still prioritizing, ‘How do we activate our print readers to migrate them to digital,’ I would shift that to be: ‘How do we activate new digital, and how do we reduce our expenditures and dependencies on the cost of printing,’” Skok said.
Transitioning to digital won’t happen overnight — especially when print accounts for a significant amount of revenue
As publications focus on reducing their dependency on print, Lenfest Institute Chief Operating Officer Ken Herts recommended that participants develop forecasts to determine when and where the costs of printing and distributing the newspaper outweigh the revenues. Some newspapers, he said, have run calculations to determine when it will cease being profitable to have seven-day print delivery and also when it will become more profitable to have only one weekend print edition. In any case, it’s important to build up the digital revenue stream to support the newsroom, moving as many print readers to digital as possible and seeking new paying digital readers.
“If there’s incremental profits available for print, they’re going to want incremental profits,” Herts said.
Using revenue forecasting can give organizations an idea as to how much longer they can rely on print revenue, and then optimize the use of these funds. Skok said more organizations should view print revenue as non-dilutive capital to fund the digital business.
“Let’s stop thinking about how to convert print readers, and let’s think more about how we can squeeze as much out of [print] as possible to extend our runway so that we can then use that to invest in the startup, which is the digital side,” Skok said.
Extending that runway could mean changing what the definition of a print product means to your organization, Herts said. Some outlets have successfully reduced the number of days they print each week while retaining profits and cutting expenses. Other organizations are changing their delivery models to make better use of their resources.
When transitioning beyond print, prioritize building and nurturing staff buy-in
As newsrooms continue their move toward a primarily digital future, it can be easy for staff members to feel lost as things begin changing. In order to shift an organization’s culture toward a digital mindset, Skok said it is important that newsroom leadership make sure all team members understand the priorities, resources, and processes being changed or implemented.
Getting this buy-in from staff may sometimes require newsroom leadership to change their messaging depending on what kind experience their staffers have. Early proponents of digital media or digital natives in particular might have a difficult time understanding why some resources are still being allocated to print during this transitional period.
“There’s not one uniform sense of this is why print is important, but [staff] come with very different and heavy baggage, particularly the ones that were in the newsrooms of the early 2000s when they felt like they were not heard,” Skok said. “It’s as much of a communication challenge as it is anything else in educating what this actually means to the bottom line and to the runway.”
Another important factor in getting staff on board is being realistic about resources. If resources are limited, it can create conflict among staff, who might think other areas of the operation should be prioritized instead. By using revenue forecasting models, organizations should determine what size newsroom they can realistically maintain, and then allocate resources for both print and digital from there.
As newsroom leaders work to get this buy-in, it is important to keep in mind that all staff members — whether they have more experience working in print or digital — bring unique skills that organizations can and should use to their advantage during their transition.
“I think any success that I have been able to have in the sector has primarily been predicated on the idea that editorial, product, and business strategy all have to be completely linked,” Skok said. “You cannot do one without the other. You won’t succeed.”
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