A  Paradox Emerges: Why Aren’t Avid Readers More Likely to Keep Subscriptions?

When Northwestern University researchers analyzed subscriber data from three major metro news outlets, they identified coverage areas and reader behaviors that correlated with customers keeping their subscriptions.

Two key ones were a regular reading habit and consumption of unique local content.

But two other behaviors jumped out because they showed no correlation with subscriber retention. In a possible paradox, people who read many stories and read them for longer were no more likely to keep their subscriptions than those who didn’t.

The Spiegel Research Center at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications conducted the research in the fall of 2018 using 13 terabytes of anonymous subscriber data from the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star. The project is part of the Medill Local News Initiative, an effort to make American journalism more sustainable.

Spiegel Research Director Ed Malthouse admitted that he was “wrestling” with the reasons why subscriber retention did not appear to be boosted by what he calls “extent” (how many articles a person reads for each day of reading) and “depth” (time spent per article read).

“In a couple of markets we found ‘page views per reading day’ to be not only flat but going the wrong way. It’s associated with churn,” Malthouse said. “Then the next question I have is: Why? And that’s the question we haven’t answered.”

But Malthouse has come up with “at least 3 different explanations”:

  • “Maybe your coverage of certain things just isn’t very good. And if I’m just reading a headline, I get updated on it and it doesn’t bother me. But when I actually read the article, I realize that whatever this thing I’m interested in, I get way better coverage elsewhere.”
  • “Number 2 is … there’s some sort of generational thing. We’re just being trained now to skim, with Twitter and Facebook and all these things showing me lots of headlines without much depth. … So there’s this cultural shift happening.”
  • “Number 3 … either I’m overloaded or I’m reminded of all the negativity or the cynicism when I read the stories. So, if I’m just reading headlines I don’t get that. If I’m actually reading all these things, then I get ticked off because it just depresses me.”

“We have to resolve that paradox with some future research,” Malthouse said. “When I look at what Washington Post and New York Times do, I think they may already know about this. They have a lot of touch points—they update me. You don’t have to read this whole story if you’re tracking this issue of Trump and whatever—here’s what’s new about it in two sentences.”

Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute, said it would be wrong to think readers don’t like long stories.

“In the data that we have from our Metrics for News, which about 75 publishers have used over the years, we have seen a pretty strong correlation between really long stories and coming back multiple times a month, more people read these stories, they share thesestories,” Rosenstiel said.

[Serving readers efficiently is] going to be both saving them time and creating value for them. And time is a kind of value, right? If I can make it possible that you can get real value from me and save time and then choose the stories that you want to go in depth on, that’s creating a new kind of value.

Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American PressInstitute

But he also believes news websites must accommodate the scanning reader. Those that don’t are “a holdover from another era,” sacrificing reader satisfaction just to keep them on the site. To make his point, he drew a comparison between news websites and local television news broadcasts of decades past.

“Local TV used to try and tease people to keep watching,” Rosenstiel said, “so they would tease the weather and they would tease these stories at the end. ‘Stick around for this,’ ‘stick around for this.’ A lot of teasing and a lot of foreshadowing. And then you get to that story and ‘OK, I got two seconds of video that was nothing. I feel kind of used.’ In that era, the whole point was to ‘capture the audience’ and expose them to as much advertising as possible.”

But if today’s news websites worry more about reader value than “time spent,” they may be more financially successful.

“When you do that, instead of trying to manipulate your reader to spend more time with you, or ‘capture’ them, or take them inside a walled garden, I’m trying to understand what they need,” Rosenstiel said. “And that’s going to be both saving them time and creating value for them. And time is a kind of value, right? If I can make it possible that you can get real value from me and save time and then choose the stories that you want to go in depth on, that’s creating a new kind of value.”

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

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.

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