More than 5,000 miles — or 8,000 kilometers — separate Berlin, Germany and Denton, Texas, but newspapers based in the two cities are facing similar challenges as they work to build a sustainable future for their journalism and reduce their reliance on print revenue.
While the Denton Record-Chronicle and Die Tageszeitung, commonly known as taz, publish in different languages, have unique ownership structures, and serve different audiences, there are common themes and lessons that newspapers all over the world can learn from these two publications that have committed to reducing print frequency and growing their digital audience.
This week in Solution Set, we’re highlighting key takeaways from both taz and the Record-Chronicle, along with links to full case studies about each publication and resources to dig deeper into how news organizations are pursuing thoughtful print reduction strategies.
These are part of Beyond Print, a program led by The Lenfest Institute and American Press Institute that aims to guide four participating news organizations through their shift toward digital and features a number of guest speakers paving the way for digital sustainability.
We’ll be sharing more resources related to print reduction in the future, but if you would like to receive upcoming insights and updates about Beyond Print in your inbox, please complete this form. If a friend forwarded you this email, you can subscribe to Solution Set and catch up on past coverage here.
Here are the tips:
Create metrics for success
When taz made the decision in 2018 to work toward eliminating its daily print edition, the staff didn’t immediately determine a timeline for the shift. Instead, the team decided upon three conditions that must be met before it stops the presses:
- It must reach 30,000 subscriptions in a mixture of digital and weekly edition and 40,000 contributing to its voluntary payment model
- Products must be improved upon to support increased digital readership
- It has to have its internal processes organized so employees can best support the products and audiences
The paper’s leadership has made sure that its staff and readers know that these three conditions are the priorities and that the team is working toward a common goal.
“We had to learn it the hard way that it’s not useful to set and communicate a timeframe for the transformation because many believe that the point in time only has to be reached so everything will settle down,” CEO Aline Lüllmann said. “But we need all people on deck to make this transformation.”
Data informs decisions — and helps with staff buy-in
To get the taz staff on board with the transformation and show them that the organization still had a bright future, the paper’s former managing director started the transitional process by creating a model showing how taz could survive in 2022 with increased digital and weekly print subscriptions, but without its daily print paper.
The paper also began surveying its readership to better understand which products they valued and their likelihood to convert to a different product after daily print is discontinued.
The survey results were actually reassuring, as taz originally expected to lose about half of its print readers, but survey data only suggested around 25% would abandon the organization completely.
Streamlining digital products
Making it as easy for both print readers and staff to adapt to digital platforms is key.
To simplify the transition, taz decided to strengthen its existing digital products instead of creating new ones. Both taz and the Record-Chronicle saw the importance of publishing an e-edition for readers who wanted a digital facsimile of the experience of reading the newspaper.
“We did not want to get bogged down with the development of new products that might not turn out to be profitable in the end,” said Katrin Gottschalk, deputy editor-in-chief of taz. “We are really focusing on the stuff we know we can earn money for.”
Transparency in communications
Before the Denton Record-Chronicle switched to a twice weekly printing schedule, the paper increased its digital marketing and informed consumers that they would be able to access more local news online. Tactics included almost-daily announcements in all versions of the paper, email blasts, physical letters mailed to subscribers, postcards, and numerous social media announcements.
External communication is also a key focus for taz, which hosts an annual cooperative assembly via YouTube, writes updates on its blog, includes a page of updates in the weekly print edition, publishes press releases, and even hosts events celebrating its successes with their supporters.
All hands on deck for customer service
Despite its external communications strategy, introducing print-loyal Record-Chronicle readers to new content required direct communication. The Denton Media Company enlisted the help of all of its 20 or so employees across the organization, who then set up one-on-one conversations with lapsed subscribers to help them understand how to access their news in a digital format.
Over time, the Denton Media Company staff was able to reach around 300 lapsed subscribers. The guidance was effective at converting readers, and the staff realized a common misconception among readers was that a reduction in print meant a reduction in content, which was what initially drove them away.
“I think the biggest thing was that so many of [the lapsed subscribers] were just mad, you know?” said publisher Bill Patterson. “And once they got over that and realized, ‘OK, where else am I going to get this [hyperlocal reporting]?’ They learned to adapt to it.”
Want to know more?
- Read the full set of takeaways from the Denton Record-Chronicle and taz.
- Check out more key learnings from Beyond Print here, including details on the experiments currently being conducted among the four participating organizations.
- International Journalists’ Network published an overview of taz’s cooperative ownership and free-to-read content model back in 2018.
- Visit taz’s house blog, where the staff regularly shares insights and updates from within the newsroom with their general audiences.
- More and more newspapers are starting to cut their print products in favor of digital publishing. Last week the Hearst-owned Torrington Register Citizen in Connecticut announced that it was shifting to weekly print publication in March. Anchorage Press announced in December it was suspending its print product, and in November Alabama Media Group said printing would cease in 2023.
- Earlier this month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report on strategies or policies that can help newspapers with digital transformation, including potential government funding and tax incentives.