3 Leading News Organizations Serve as ‘Learning Labs’ for Local News Initiative Projects

Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star aim for insights and digital subscribers

Three leading U.S. news organizations are serving as “learning labs” for Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative, a project to harness data and other research tools to find ways to make local journalism sustainable.

The three outlets – the Chicago Tribune, Indianapolis Star and San Francisco Chronicle – have submitted terabytes of anonymous online reader data to Northwestern’s Spiegel Digital and Database Research Center for analysis. A key goal: to correlate reader behavior with what the researchers call “stickiness” – whether digital subscribers stick with the product.

Spiegel, which is a part of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, will identify online trends that may apply across the news industry, as well as share insights unique to the three outlets’ individual markets.

The three news organizations will receive some preliminary findings in December, and general conclusions will be shared with the industry and academic researchers early next year. The analysis also will be used by the Northwestern Knight Lab in developing new products, tools and approaches for local reporting. Northwestern announced the Local News Initiative in April with the goal of providing greater understanding of how digital audiences engage with local news and finding innovations to strengthen local news business models. But what do the three “learning labs” hope to get out of this analysis?

The short answer would be: more digital subscribers, says Ronnie Ramos, Executive Editor of the Indianapolis Star. The more involved answer would be … better data and understanding of what readers are reading and how they’re reading us and when.

In recent years, daily newspaper websites have focused on boosting page views, but the slide in ad revenue – often based on page views – has prompted many to turn more intensively to reader revenue sources such as digital subscriptions.

It’s pretty easy to figure out what people will click on, but it’s a whole ‘nother question to figure out what they’re willing to pay for and what will keep them coming back again and again.

Audrey Cooper, Editor in Chief of the San Francisco Chronicle

It’s pretty easy to figure out what people will click on, says Audrey Cooper, Editor in Chief of the San Francisco Chronicle. But it’s a whole ‘nother question to figure out what they’re willing to pay for and what will keep them coming back again and again.

The Learning Labs

All three of the “learning lab” news organizations are more than a century old, and all three have earned praise for their investigative reporting. Yet they are quite different, reflecting the histories and personalities of their market. Here’s a look:

The Tribune, founded in 1847 and long known as a Republican paper, helped get Abraham Lincoln elected president, and its editorial criticizing Richard Nixon was a key milestone in the demise of his presidency.

But the Tribune has a mixed record in national politics, forever branded by the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline displayed by a victorious Truman in 1948. (With that history in mind, the Tribune never declared George W. Bush or Al Gore as election-night winner in 2000, though many other newspapers did.)

These days, the Tribune sees its greatest opportunities in local news.

When we looked at what stories tend to drive more conversions [to subscriptions], the focus is on local, says Christine Taylor, the Tribune’s managing editor for audience. So it’s that kind of differentiating factor that a paper like the Chicago Tribune can have in a market. We’re not trying to compete with the New York Times and the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal on the national scale. It’s what can we provide to the local market as the local news resource to people that’s going to differentiate us. So kind of trying to steer away from commodity content into more about how do we help people find perspective or context around the things that are happening in the news, whether that’s on the national scale or a local scale.

That requires approaching national stories with local angles. As an example, Taylor cites birthright citizenship, an aspect of the immigration debate that has resonance in Chicago because of the city’s large immigrant population.

But it’s not just about story topics. Transformation to digital requires openness to alternative presentation and new platforms. I think we have to really understand where the opportunities are for us to branch out from our primary platforms, Taylor says. And I think, too, it’s not just about jumping into the podcast game because everybody has a podcast. It’s: What do we as the Chicago Tribune bring to that space that’s going to be unique and give someone a reason to subscribe and download the podcast every new episode?

Taylor hopes the Local News Initiative will help the Tribune can evolve to meet its readers needs and wants -- how we can do a better job of meeting them where they are instead of thinking that we’re the Chicago Tribune and everybody just comes to us because we’re the Chicago Tribune. Because I think we can acknowledge that that’s not really happening anymore.

The Tribune has been through ownership changes in recent years. It is part of the Tribune Publishing chain, which was recently known as Tronc. Talks are underway to sell the chain.

One strong suit for the Tribune going forward is the consistent excellence of its investigations. Eight of its investigative projects have been Pulitzer finalists in the last eight years.

Taylor is eager to see the Local News Initiative’s findings since sometimes we’re too nose-to-the-glass in the newsroom to be able to get to that outside perspective.

So I think it will be really interesting, she says, to see the insights that they provide and how we can then take those and put them into action in the newsroom.

The Star was founded in 1903 by businessman George F. McCulloch, who hired a balloonist to drop half a million red paper stars over the city as a publicity stunt. A cartoonist in the Star’s early years, Johnny Gruelle, was the creator of the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls.

Later, after a half century under the ownership of the Pulliam family, the newspaper was sold to the Gannett chain in 2000. It is the winner of two Pulitzers for investigative reporting.

Though business trends have been ominous for some local news outlets, Executive Editor Ramos says the Star has grown its audience. I don’t subscribe that we’re fully in a crisis as an industry, Ramos says. We think we are in a – I call it a new age of journalism, and so we’re trying to create and innovate given the new set of tools and the new ways our readers are consuming content. Hard-hitting local stories are a priority.

We’ve grown and improved our investigations team, he says, most notably USA Gymnastics. The Star’s investigation of the Indianapolis-based organization revealed major failures in oversight of Larry Nasser, the team doctor accused of sexual abuse by more than 150 women.

The USA Gymnastics reporting had so much impact that Michigan Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis praised it in court: What finally started this reckoning and ended this decades-long cycle of abuse was investigative reporting, she said.

Ramos also notes a 2016 exclusive: We were the paper that broke that Donald Trump was going to name Mike Pence as his running mate. Another aspect of the Star’s strategy is playing to its customers’ passion for sports.

We over-index in sports, says Ramos. A bigger percentage of our total traffic comes from sports compared to other major metro sites. This has inspired the Star to try new approaches in sports coverage, including live-streaming a high school football game every Friday night. Sports tends to innovate first in a newsroom, Ramos says. So they were the earliest and best adaptors to Twitter, for example. And so it’s easier to innovate in sports because you also can plan better – you know when the major sports events are going to happen. … You can take chances and experiment. … We know when the games start, we know when we want the stuff in and we know when we can post it. So it gives us the ability to try stuff. … You don’t have that luxury in news because so much more of news is reactive.

Founded by the de Young family in 1865 and originally called the Daily Dramatic Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle became part of the Hearst chain in 2000. The Chronicle has won six Pulitzer Prizes, including one for famed columnist Herb Caen.

Bucking the trend in many U.S. newsrooms, the Chronicle’s staffing has remained stable in recent years. Its last layoffs were about eight years ago, says Editor in Chief Cooper. The size of our newsroom has actually grown since I became editor because we added an I-team for investigations, she says.

We’re still by far the biggest media outlet in Northern California, and we have the biggest newsroom north of Los Angeles and all the way as far east as Texas, Cooper says.

There are plenty of readers counting on the Chronicle, and we can’t afford to fail for them, she says.

That mission was demonstrated recently in the Chronicle’s energetic coverage of the California wildfires. Cooper even tweeted a list of equipment such as fire tents and Nomex flame-resistant clothing that was purchased for reporters covering such disasters.

Our print circulation is essentially flat, so that buys us time.

Audrey Cooper, Editor in Chief of the San Francisco Chronicle

Cooper knows her newsroom’s future rests in strong online readership and is managing the transformation. Our print circulation is essentially flat, so that buys us time, Cooper says.

A unique issue for the Chronicle is managing two news websites – SFGate.com and SFChronicle.com. SFGate is the older, more established one, and it’s free. It has about 130 million page views per month, the vast majority of which are outside of its designated market area. SFGate is not controlled by the newsroom, but SFChronicle is. That’s the Chronicle’s premium site, with a metered paywall and local content that sfgate does not offer. SFChronicle has 10.8 million page views per month, and the Chronicle is “focused in this area,” Cooper says.

Do you have feedback on our stories? Do you want to share observations about the local news crisis? Can you suggest stories that we should write or topics to explore?

Find us on Twitter at @LocalNewsIni or email us at localnewsinitiative@northwestern.edu

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About the author

Mark Jacob


A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of six books on history and photography.

About the project

What Drives People to Pay for Local Journalism

Medill’s Spiegel Research Center (SRC), a leader in consumer and audience-based research that drives financial outcomes, is analyzing many terabytes of anonymous data about reader behavior and customer motivation at three Learning Labs – the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star. The goal: Identify what content and behaviors drive consumers to engage with and pay for local news.

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