Practical ways the entire news organization can work together to keep your hard-won subscribers

Neil Chase is the CEO of CALMatters, a non-partisan, non-profit journalism venture dedicated to how California’s public policy works and why it matters. Previously, he was the executive editor of The San Jose Mercury News and the East Bay Times. This discussion follows his presentation at the Facebook Retention Accelerator Program in Austin, where he reflected on his experience getting journalists engaged with paying subscribers.

Want to keep your digital subscribers? Put the newsroom in charge of retention. Seriously!

Before 1995, readers bought printed newspapers for all sorts of reasons: Classifieds, coupons, puzzles, TV listings, movie times, more coupons, the schedule for the Lions Club’s monthly first-Thursday barbecue (which was always on the first Thursday but they liked to look it up anyway) and, of course, the news.

Today, your subscribers are paying for one thing: Journalism.

Your readers are there for the quality work that reporters and editors produce every day. And that means your journalists are a secret weapon in the effort to keep readers engaged, enthused and enrolled in that monthly easy-pay program.

This means rethinking some of our prior biases about what we used to call “The Business Side” of journalism. Yes, it’s non-negotiable that we stick to our journalistic standards and not let advertisers influence our work. But if journalists aren’t thinking about what people will read, what’s most important to them, and what they’ll pay for, we’re out of business.

How do you get journalists enthusiastic about talking directly with readers? Here are three steps to take:

  1. Transparency: Share the numbers. Journalists want details. Explain what has happened to revenue in the past 20 years. It’s down at least 50% and in some places 80%. And it’s not coming back. People need to understand that.
  2. Truth: If you were writing the story about another industry, you’d say the numbers suggest we’re headed for zero. Be that honest about our own industry and the depth of the challenge we face.
  3. Hope: Explain the value of digital subscriptions, which is that a strong base of reader payments can be enough to sustain a healthy news operation regardless of what happens to advertising, printing and distribution.

And you can’t just send out a memo to instill these three points. You have to teach them to everyone.

When I was the editor at The Mercury News and the East Bay Times, we gave everyone a crash course in the business model for digital subscriptions. One morning, everyone arrived to find plastic funnels on their desks imprinted with our logos and the customer journey: The path from awareness to engagement, registration and subscription (and retention, which we should have had on there, too). Then we had a meeting where we explained how a “funnel” or customer journey is used in the worlds of sales and marketing and how to think about it in the newsroom.

Now you have everyone’s attention. How can you use it wisely? Here are three ways to move ahead:

1) Easy: Daily Contact.

Here are things every journalist can do every day that will be meaningful to your paying subscribers.

  • Reply to a subscriber’s email or social post
  • Talk to a subscriber in person
  • Call a subscriber back
  • Ask a source/friend/seatmate/person-stuck-in-line-with-you if they read and subscribe and why. (For bonus points, give your journalists a special discount code to share in circumstances like this.)
  • Use subscriber feedback in stories and on social
  • Surprise a reader by calling, emailing or sending something in the mail in response to a comment or social post.

Can this really help when you have a small team in the newsroom and you’re trying to retain thousands of subscribers? Yes! Suppose you have 20,000 subscribers and 20 journalists. If each journalist does something personal for one subscriber on every one of the 250 business days in a year, that’s five thousand people, or one quarter of your subscribers. Increasing retention among those 5,000 people will make a significant difference in the bottom line.

2) Medium: Get Subscribers Involved.

Here are ways to bring the newsroom and your subscribers together in meaningful ways

  • Conference calls in which reporters discuss issues.
  • In-person events where reporters lead community conversations about important issues
  • Facebook groups focused on a particular topic where readers passionate about that subject will read all of your coverage and provide meaningful, frequent feedback if you nurture the conversation
  • Newsroom tours and invitations to be guests at news meetings
  • Emails to small groups of subscribers with messages like “because you’re a subscriber, I’d like to ask for your input on this story I’m doing.”

These tactics can and should work together. Consider using events to attract people and then getting those people into groups, while also inviting people from groups to live events. Some journalists will be naturals at this kind of engagement. Some will learn. Some may not, and that’s OK.

3) Hard: Product Leadership.

This is a new concept for most journalists: Play a leading role in creating and managing something that goes beyond regular reporting and publishing. It starts with a journalist who has unique expertise, and it requires a strong partnership with others in the organization who can help with marketing and execution. Here are a couple real-world examples:

  • A Denver Post photojournalist offers a two-day weekend workshop for amateur photographers. In that workshop, the journalist and subscribers shoot together, critique the work, share tips and tricks, and learn to better understand their gear. These are people who spend significant money on equipment, so they’ll spend money to be there for a weekend. A photography vendor may be willing to support it, too. This brings in revenue while also ensuring that 25 readers will remain paid subscribers.
  • The college sports writer at The Mercury News broadens his coverage to follow the entire PAC-12 conference and college sports across the west coast, then shares that coverage with other west coast newsrooms, starts a newsletter and sets up radio interviews and in-person appearances with readers. If you’re his fan and he engages you in creative ways every week, you’re not going to let that subscription lapse.

This is, of course, more difficult to pull off. And there won’t be many in any one newsroom. But a few of these products will have an important impact on subscriber retention. It might start when you realize someone in the newsroom has this level of expertise and you suggest they try something new. It may generate new subscribers, too, as passionate fans tell their friends.

These types of creative, bold initiatives to get connected with subscribers can only happen if organizational leaders open the door. That might be the most important thing a newsroom leader can do: Explain these techniques to the staff, encourage (or require!) your managers to discuss them with their teams, and be ready to receive, discuss and celebrate crazy ideas.

It’s time to let the people who write the stories help write the future of our business.

The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Subscriptions Accelerator is a program designed to help news publishers build their digital subscription revenues. This program is specifically focused on increasing subscriber retention. Funded and organized by The Facebook Journalism Project, the 3-month program includes hands-on workshops led by news industry veteran Tim Griggs, a grantmaking program organized by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and regular reports on best practices authored by both The Lenfest Institute and the Facebook Journalism Project. The Subscriptions Accelerator is part of the broader Accelerator Program. Previous iterations have focused on acquiring digital subscriptions and digital video.

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