Beyond Print Toolkit: Website development

News organizations that have been successful with positioning their websites for growth beyond print are publishing content that is timely, relevant, and accessible to find and consume.

By Shannan Bowen

June 27, 2024

beast01 / Shutterstock

A website may not seem like anything new or innovative for a publisher these days, but digital transformation strategies often underutilize our audience’s most commonly used news product. While a website is often the first and most basic tool in the kit, shifting to a digital-first publishing approach can be complex and daunting. Which design do you use to ensure your site is mobile friendly? Which content management system is best for timely publishing? And what about digital ads and reader revenue tactics? Though there are many factors to consider, a website is a priority product for most digital-first publishers because it is essentially the front door through which people enter to consume your journalism.

News organizations that have been successful with positioning their websites for growth beyond print are publishing content that is timely, relevant, and accessible to find and consume. They are also generating revenue through digital advertising, subscriptions, or membership using web-based tools and features.

The essentials

When considering your digital web strategy, we recommend honing in on three strategic areas:

Content publishing: Are you publishing content to your site in a timely way that meets the readership needs of your audience? As you change your print offerings, are you meeting the demand for digital news for your community? You’ll want to consider the following:

  • Publishing time of day: Depending on your publication type and content strategy, you’ll want to determine when it is best to publish your coverage. Many outlets publish stories during times of peak readership but others tend to publish them as they’re ready, particularly if they’re publishing breaking news. These approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, but you’ll want to analyze what’s best for you and your audience. 
  • Frequency: Are you publishing daily or weekly? Perhaps your product is a news magazine. What can you glean from your audience behavior data about the times they visit and the referrals that bring them in to help you determine how frequently you should publish to the web? Keep in mind that digital readership preferences are driven by the reader and their discovery habits, whereas print readership is dictated by the availability of the product.
  • Content recommendations: Once your reader comes to your website, how are you guiding them to discover other content and increase their engagement on your site? Recirculation is an important metric that can boost digital revenue and engagement. You can use links to related stories, modules that displate additional articles on your story page, or engaging ways to showcase content on your homepage.

User experience: Using the analogy of your website being a front door for people to experience your journalism, you’ll want to ensure you’re inviting people into a welcoming environment. By that, we mean ensuring that your site’s design and user experience helps people easily find information they need and also engages them so they’ll return and build loyalty with your digital products. Here are a few focus areas:

  • Is your site mobile friendly? According to a 2023 Pew Research Center study, 86% of U.S. adults get news often or sometimes from a smartphone, computer or tablet. To ensure you’re providing the best user experience for your readers, your site should suit a variety of screens, from mobile to desktop computer. 
  • The design of your site should be appealing for visitors, but also it should be functional. Your visitors should be able to easily find what they’re looking for and not face too many distractions. While add-ons like auto-play videos or programmatic ads can boost revenue, you’ll want to carefully assess how they impact your site’s user experience. 
  • Accessibility guidelines for your site ensures equitable access to your news products, especially for people who experience certain disabilities. According to the Web Accessibility Initiative, which maintains global accessibility standards, “Accessibility is essential for developers and organizations that want to create high-quality websites and web tools, and not exclude people from using their products and services.” 

Digital revenue: You may be seeing a decline in print revenue that you want to fill with digital opportunities, or perhaps you’re looking to add an additional revenue stream. Either way, your website’s content and design strategy should be aligned to your revenue plans. These approaches will be covered elsewhere in this guide, but here’s a glimpse at the most common digital website revenue opportunities:

  • Advertising: You likely notice news sites who prioritize advertising as their revenue strategy, but which ones maintain quality user experience while doing so? As you consider where to place ads, whether to use interactive ads such as video, or even how many ads to include, keep in mind how your users will be impacted. Too many ads may make it difficult for your readers to consume content, while video ads that autoplay may cause a disruption. You’ll also want to determine your balance of programmatic ads and direct sold inventory, and use pricing to guide how you prioritize selling each type.
  • Subscriptions: Though it took a while for digital subscriptions to catch on for local news, many readers are now accustomed to encountering paywalls or calls to action asking them to subscribe before reading content on a news site. A variety of subscription tactics, from metered paywalls to premium subscriber-only features, can be considered for your site. The best path will make sense for your specific audience, content strategy, and revenue goals.
  • Memberships: Like subscriptions, memberships can be a tool for generating revenue from people who are highly engaged and committed to your brand. They typically differ from subscriptions because they don’t require paywalls restricting access to content and typically emphasize shared values of supporting local news or provide perks in exchange for sustaining donations. For more on memberships, check out The Membership Guide

Key indicators

The News Reporter, a newspaper in rural North Carolina, transformed itself from a twice-weekly, print-centric news operation to a digital-first strategy that included frequent and timely publishing and a new digital subscription plan.

“We empowered our reporters to post stories to the web as soon as a meeting or news event ended. The News Reporter is one of those places where many employees stay for their entire careers, so we had to help them build their digital skills. We also encouraged reporters to not only provide written stories but tell stories via video and photography,” said the organization’s Jenny Clore in a case study for American Press Institute’s Better News.

And it was a success. In the first year, it saw a dramatic increase in pageviews as a result of its new publishing schedule and redesigned website, a sign that people in their community were building a habit and getting used to visiting the website for updated information rather than waiting for it to appear at the same time as the print publication.

In 2019, it launched a metered paywall and simplified the types of subscription plans available to its community. “We’ve had some expected pushback, but overall, people have been willing to pay for their news,” Clore wrote.

The News Reporter’s case represents typical expectations when shifting to a digital-first web strategy. You’ll likely notice an increase in key metrics that matter for digital engagement: readership as measured by the number of unique visitors on your site per month, the number of pageviews viewed, the pageviews per visitor, and even time on site. As you grow digital readership, you’ll want to identify metrics that tell a story of success for your organization by revisiting your strategy and asking questions that indicate progress toward your top goal. Here’s an example of a few common metrics you may want to monitor, and why:

  • Pageviews: While the days of aiming for virality driven by social media platforms are over, pageviews are still an indication of interest among your readers. But beyond just the number of pageviews, what can your data tell you about the types of stories that are popular? Do pageviews tend to spike during a particular time of day, or after you promote stories to a specific audience or platform? Studying the reasons behind pageviews will help you continue to craft your digital strategy.
  • Pageviews per visitor: Are your readers engaged? Studying the number of pageviews viewed per visitor will help you understand whether people are coming to a single article and then leaving, or if they’re finding additional engaging content and reading further. You may want to test different techniques, such as article recommendations, to increase pageviews per visitor. If you are an organization with a metered paywall, this metric is key for learning about audience behavior that will ultimately move people to become paying subscribers.
  • Referrals: How do people get to your site? What’s the most effective tactic for reaching your audience? Study their referral paths. Look at search, social media and direct links that originate from newsletters or other destinations. You may need to append codes to links that you send in newsletters to be sure your analytics system can tell you exactly where that link was clicked. Many email systems now automatically include link tracking codes, but here’s a primer you can review just in case.


As we outline in the user research section of this guide, collecting audience data and input is key for transitioning to a digital-first web strategy. From there, you can start testing the components of your website plan that we recommended focusing on: content publishing, user experience and digital revenue.

A/B testing is one of the most commonly used methods for testing whether your design or even revenue strategies are effective. You can use tools like Optimizely to manage these tests. Before you begin, outline your goals and a hypothesis for why you think one approach for your site will help you meet those goals. Then, you can run an experiment with the help of A/B testing tools that will show one version of your site to a set of users, and another to the other set. You’ll then collect analytics to help you determine which version of your site performs best according to the goals and key performance indicators you’ve outlined. 

For example, one goal might be to try to increase recirculation, measured by pageviews per visitor. You could run an A/B test that shows content recommendations at different places on an article page to determine the best placement for these recommendations. Is it the middle of the article or the bottom of the page? What kind of content works? You could also run an A/B test to study whether people tend to visit articles related to the subject of the one they’re reading, or if they are more likely to visit articles that match their reading history on the site. A/B testing helps minimize risk and points you to the tactic most likely to reach your goals.


Maybe your site needs a refresh to enable more frequent and updated publishing plans. Or, perhaps you’ve discovered that your site isn’t as mobile friendly as it should be to attract readers through search or social media. Before launching or updating your site, consider your overall strategy and use audience research to guide your approach. Effective websites will engage your readers, meet their needs for timely and useful information, provide an engaging experience and, ideally, deliver you revenue to sustain your operation.

We recommend exploring the following resources to help guide you through implementation of design, publishing strategy, and revenue: 

  • Content management systems: There’s not a one-size-fits-all content management solution. The best one will fit your specific use cases and budget. Newspack has emerged as a leading solution, particularly for independent publishers. For more on how to evaluate a CMS, check out the technology section. 
  • Audience development tools and best practices: Solutions from organizations like BlueLena can help publishers accelerate digital transformation through their platforms and services for audience engagement and digital marketing.
  • Design and UX: Assess how mobile-friendly your site is using Chrome’s Lighthouse tool. If you’re interested  in redesigning your site, review this playbook from News Revenue Hub to guide you through the process.

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