Beyond Print Toolkit: Internal communications

How to educate staff about the realities of the newspaper business

By Hayley Slusser

June 27, 2024

Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock

Just as important as keeping your subscribers in the loop is keeping your staff up-to-date. Print reduction is a big shift — it means changing internal processes and individual responsibilities that may have been in place for years. Some staff may not even be aware of the economic realities that are contributing to this transition.

If you want a smoother print reduction process, it’s critical to be transparent with employees and help them see how their skills can still be applied meaningfully even without a daily print product. 

The essentials

Being realistic and transparent about your organization’s financial and operational situation is at the core of any successful internal communications plan about the transition beyond print. 

At The Oklahoman, which decided in 2020 to prioritize digital growth, this meant educating staffers about the fundamental challenges of the local newspaper business. 

“My message was simple. Despite all the work these staff members did, all the times we rallied together and said, ‘We can save ourselves if we just work harder,’ despite all the work everyone put into making the print product as great as it could be — our subscribers still turn us away and these staff members are all gone,” wrote former Business Editor David Dishman in Better News

From there, it is important to motivate staff and show them that sustainability is possible. At German newspaper taz, the former managing director created a model showing the possible ways for the paper to survive with increased digital and weekly print subscriptions, but without its daily print paper. That model was then shared with staff.

“This was a totally new thought for us, for taz, and for daily newspapers in general,” taz CEO Aline Lüllmann said. “It was important to convince everyone at taz that we could do it and give them a sense of how we could do it.”

Key indicators

Some journalists may be hesitant to move away from prioritizing the print product. Older journalists understand the deep attachment to local papers, while younger journalists might not understand why the move to digital can’t just happen immediately. 

“There’s not one uniform sense of ‘this is why print is important,’ but [staff] come with very different and heavy baggage,” said David Skok, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Logic. “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.”

Utilizing existing data on your organization can help communicate the need to move away from print to your staff. When Dishman was at The Oklahoman, he created a presentation showing decreasing print subscriber rates in recent years alongside a list of employees who got laid off or left the company during that time period. These metrics showed that the current focus on print was unsustainable — something the staff found “shocking.”

The Oklahoman also began shifting the conversation around impact away from front page stories and toward digital metrics of success like pageviews or digital subscriber rates. 

Organizations can also refer to FTI Consulting’s digital subscription maturity curve to show staff metrics on the current state of the organization’s digital strategy and how they can take it to the next level.

The FTI Consulting maturity curve has five stages: Lagging, Gaining, Chasing, Leading, and Best-in-Class. Each stage includes benchmarks for the organization’s strategic direction, resource allocation, subscription and marketing strategies, and analytic and tech capabilities. Although some organizations might find themselves in between various stages…referring to these metrics can help identify next steps to improve your digital subscription strategy. Organizations can keep coming back to the maturity curve to chart their own progress, celebrate wins, and use it as a tool to unify the organization around its goals. 

A diagram showing the different stages of the digital subscription maturity curve

Source: FTI Consulting


Most journalists understand that fulfilling their organization’s mission and serving the community’s information needs come before all else. 

“I think it’s about relevance. I don’t know of any reporters who don’t want their work to be read, seen, or part of the conversation. Helping people understand the relevance of their work across every platform has really been important,” said Kelly Ann Scott, former vice president of content at Alabama Media Group, which eliminated its print products in 2023.

At The Oklahoman, this looked like implementing new data tracking tools, including and a Gannett-specific subscription tracker, to help reporters understand the success of their digital stories, how people are navigating to the site, and whether subscription rates are increasing accordingly. These tools also came with the promise from newsroom leaders that just because certain topics are more popular does not mean other stories are not worth covering. 

Skok said it is important that newsroom leadership make sure all team members understand the priorities, resources, and processes being changed or implemented, especially as certain teams or workflows evolve to accommodate digital-first publishing. 

At taz, staffers working on product and process development made an effort to engage all divisions of the company by visiting different departments, sending an internal newsletter with regular updates, providing training for new coworkers, and producing quarterly presentations on the status of their work. 

By implementing concrete processes at the start to improve communication and collaboration, Mather Economics Senior Managing Director Peter Doucette said organizations can develop strategies and experiments that make better use of employees’ time and skills. At the same time, he advised news organizations to not let perfect be the enemy of good — make sure the staff knows it is okay to try new things and make changes over time as they get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. 

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