Solution Set: Understanding the digital subscription maturity curve

Plus: Lessons from the Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange

For years now, legacy newspapers have been focused on building younger, more diverse digital audiences. However, they’ve still been heavily reliant on their print readership and advertisers for significant revenue. 

But as audiences continue to accelerate their move away from print, outlets are working to revamp their editorial and business practices to decrease their reliance on their dead-tree products and move toward sustainable long-term digital strategies. 

This week in Solution Set, we’re sharing strategies on how papers can calculate their “digital readiness” and measure how they can sustain their news operations solely from digital sources. These best practices come from Beyond Print, a new program we’re partnering on with The American Press Institute, to help guide participating publishers away from print-centric revenue models. 

Also in this newsletter: We’re sharing highlights from the Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange, an accelerator program for BIPOC media entrepreneurs. Keep scrolling for tips on how to set contract rates, strategies for using engaged journalism to generate revenue, and more.  

If you have any suggestions on which projects or initiatives you’d like to see covered in this newsletter, please feel free to reach out to [email protected]. And if a friend forwarded you this email, you can subscribe and catch up on past coverage here

How to build ‘digital readiness’ within your news organization

By Hayley Slusser

When newsrooms are preparing to shift beyond print and toward a digital-first revenue model, it’s important to consider what the ideal “end-state” revenue and expense model looks like in order to allocate resources to initiatives that support these goals. 

Peter Doucette, the former Philadelphia Inquirer chief revenue officer and Lenfest Institute senior advisor of digital revenue strategy, spoke recently to participants in Beyond Print to share insights into how to make that transition. Beyond Print is a program led by the American Press Institute and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism that aims to guide four participating news organizations toward strategies that reduce their reliance on print revenue

Advertising and other revenue sources will continue to be important for publishers, but digital revenue will largely be driven by consumer revenue, meaning digital subscriptions. 

Doucette suggested an ideal, sustainable model would have the total digital revenue equal twice the newsroom expenses. 

Goals for digital readiness can often be separated into three categories: People, process, and technology. People and technology are more straightforward and require newsrooms to acquire the proper skills and tools to function effectively in a digital environment.

“I think where publishers put the least amount of mindshare and focus is around process and changing the way you work,” he said. “You’re fundamentally building a different business as you go from a seven-day, morning publication, to the end state of a digital-only business and a print ad model that’s becoming a digital consumer model.” 

Digital subscription maturity curve

One key factor to getting your organization to a point of digital readiness is finding the right digital subscription model to sustain your business, which can decrease reliance on print ad revenue. To track the progress of this transition, news organizations can refer to the digital subscription maturity curve from FTI Consulting.

“Think of it broadly as the driver of the world beyond print and shifting from a print ad to more of a digital, consumer-led business,” Doucette said. 

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, Doucette said 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. To learn more about Doucette’s strategies for digital readiness and how to apply the digital subscription maturity curve to your own organization, click here.

Want to know more? 

• As Beyond Print participants conduct their experiments through the program, they’ll be advised by industry experts, including The Lenfest Institute’s very own Ken Herts and Amy Kovac-Ashley. Read more about the group and Beyond Print’s programming, and sign up to receive more updates and best practices from Beyond Print in your inbox.

• The Medill Local News Initiative reported that “42 of the largest 100 newspapers [are] now delivering a print edition six or fewer times a week. Eleven of those largest dailies publish in printed form only one or two times a week.” This shift is affecting business models, resulting in more similarities between traditional daily newspapers and weekly publications. 

• Gannett on Thursday reported “dismal second quarter” financial results, according to a report and analysis from Rick Edmonds in Poynter. Gannett executives said to expect cost cutting and layoffs. “Except at big national titles like the New York Times, new digital revenues still have not picked up the pace to fully cover print revenue losses, Edmonds wrote. “So the last thing the industry needs, after the COVID economy shock, is another round of revenue hits and cost pressure. Except for hedge funds, investors have pretty much lost interest in the regional part of the newspaper industry.”

• Digital-only subscriptions are becoming more popular: The top 28 ​​English language newspapers, all of which have at least 100,000 subscribers, now have 23 million digital subscribers between them, according to Press Gazette. While subscribers remain crucial for digital-first revenue models, digital ad revenue is also rising and is projected to surpass print ad revenue by 2026, according to Axios.

Documenting lessons from the Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange

The Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange is a community-grounded accelerator program supporting Philadelphia-area media leaders of color as they build their own businesses. Each founder received $10,000 to support their business along with the opportunity to apply for follow-on funding.

Over the five-month program, the PMFE entrepreneurs participated in training on operations, revenue and monetization, and marketing and branding to help them build profitable and sustainable media businesses, with programming led by the Zebras Unite Co-op in partnership with Black and Brown Founders. Programming included a guest speaker series, where leading media professionals met with the entrepreneurs to discuss business strategies, the media industry, and more. 

The Founders Exchange is a joint program of The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund with additional support from the Independence Public Media Foundation. 

We recently shared insights on the the founders’ companies and the progress they’ve made along with key takeaways from the speaker series, which include advice for startups, tips for turning engagement into revenue, and the importance of BIPOC media support and ownership

How to determine contract rates and other tips for media entrepreneurs

By Hayley Slusser

Navigating the ever-changing media industry can be tough for anyone. But for rising media entrepreneurs, running your own business, experimenting with different ideas, and securing the resources to execute your goals can feel daunting. 

The Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange entrepreneurs sat down with Sara Lomax-Reese, president and CEO of WURD Radio, Philadelphia’s only Black-owned talk radio station, and co-founder of URL Media, a decentralized network of high-performing Black and Brown media organizations, and Emma Carew Grovum, founder of newsroom consultancy Kimbap Media, to learn more about their entrepreneurial journeys and what it means to be your own boss. They shared tips for determining contract rates, communicating the value of your work to funders, and pivoting when challenges arise. 

How engaged journalism can help news organizations generate revenue

By Kiara Santos

Jennifer Brandel, founder and CEO of the consultancy Hearken, spoke with the Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange about how outlets can identify, build, and iterate on sustainable revenue strategies centered on engagement. Brandel drew on her own experience to share strategies — or “sales levers” — for how Founders Exchange cohort members can best position their businesses to successfully attract regular support from funders and investors. 

To generate revenue through engagement, Brandel advised the Founders Exchange entrepreneurs to network across their community, leverage their experiences for consulting or workshops, and staff “in” for different projects. 

How Media 2070 is working to empower Black media organizations and cultivate a thriving BIPOC media ecosystem

By Hayley Slusser

The Founders Exchange follows in the footsteps of a number of programs working to increase BIPOC media ownership, including Media 2070, which is a movement focused on addressing and documenting anti-Blackness in journalism and transforming who has the capital to tell their own stories over the next 50 years.

“In 2020 we had this whole ‘racial reckoning’ conversation going on, and we don’t want to be having those same conversations in 2070, so we’re hoping to get to a different place by then,” said Alicia Bell, co-founder of Media 2070 and director of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund , which is housed at Borealis Philanthropy. “We’ve been in this cycle for at least 150 years — I’m sure longer than that — and it’s unacceptable.”

Want to know more?

• The Lenfest Institute’s Constellation News Leadership Initiative, another career development program for Philadelphia media professionals of color, recently opened applications for its 2022-2023 class. Click to learn more about the program, its impact among previous participants, and how to apply. 

• The Founders Exchange and Constellation are just two examples of our ongoing work to support media organizations and professionals that reflect the communities they serve in Philadelphia. The Lenfest Next Generation Fund, which supports professional development opportunities for Philadelphia-area journalists, media executives, and students of color, announced its 2022 class in June.  

• Our newly developed impact metrics are being used to assess the results of the Founders Exchange and our other Philadelphia media ecosystem programs. You can find an overview of the metrics here, as well as a copy of these metrics that can be modified to fit your organization’s needs. 

And as always, please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions, comments, or suggestions for future coverage. Please email Joseph Lichterman at [email protected].

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