The ‘eHarmony of Political Coverage’ and Other Local News Innovations

Medill’s Research on Digital Subscriptions Empowers Newsrooms

Here’s a neat trick that other newsrooms might want to steal.

During Chicago’s recent election, the Tribune ran a quiz headlined, “Which Chicago mayoral candidate do you align most closely with?”

The Tribune got candidates to answer a set of 14 questions, and then readers were invited to answer the same questions and learn which politician they were most in synch with.

The feature served multiple purposes: educating readers on the candidates, helping readers focus their own opinions on the issues, and creating the kind of interactivity that builds strong reader engagement.

Christine Taylor, who became the Tribune’s Managing Editor for Audience last year after a stint at the Hartford Courant, brought the idea with her to Chicago. “The quiz was something we did at the Hartford Courant for the 2018 gubernatorial race,” she said.

The [election quiz] feature was a major winner in converting readers into subscribers, and was also popular among our existing subscribers.

Christine Taylor, Chicago Tribune Managing Editor for Audience

In Chicago, “we knew it would be popular, but it exceeded expectations,” Taylor said. “The feature was a major winner in converting readers into subscribers, and was also popular among our existing subscribers.”

Tim Franklin, head of Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative, called the idea “the eHarmony of political coverage.” Another Chicago outlet, WBEZ public radio, offered its own version, a further sign of the potential of such affinity surveys for local news outlets.

The Tribune’s candidate feature was just one of the innovations shared recently when the Medill Local News Initiative checked in with three “learning lab” news outlets that had benefited from its analysis of their digital subscriber data.

Lori Lightfoot celebrates her election as Chicago mayor on April 2, 2019. The Tribune created a popular feature allowing readers to see how well their views synched up with mayoral candidates.

The Medill project analyzed 13 terabytes of data from the Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star last year. The research focused on subscriber retention, a particularly important goal as advertising revenue lags at many news outlets and they turn to reader revenue models. A key takeaway of the studies was that creating a regular habit – preferably daily – was a key factor in keeping subscribers. And emailed newsletters were identified as a promising tactic to build that habit. But in a surprise, the amount of time spent on a website showed no correlation with retention, suggesting that some time-crunched readers are looking for an efficient and informative experience, but not necessarily a deep one.

The data analysis was conducted by the Spiegel Research Center, which is part of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Participating newsrooms received individualized reports late last year, with general findings announced publicly in February.

Focus on Newsletters

In the wake of the data analysis, the Tribune, Chronicle and Star are implementing or considering subscriber-only emailed newsletters. They are also developing new types of newsletters.

Both Medill researchers and the participating newsrooms view newsletters as an effective tactic – as instant prompts to readers to engage with news content.

The Chronicle is “doubling down” on newsletters, according to Tim O’Rourke, managing editor for digital, and has developed a newsletter aimed at subscribers that also includes some “highly engaged” non-subscribers.

Developing a variety of newsletters for targeted audiences is a common strategy.

“What this research really drove home, at least to me, and that we’re experimenting with is: Can we put together newsletters for different parts of the funnel?” said Ronnie Ramos, Executive Editor of the Indianapolis Star. “… What can we do for people who are visiting us sometimes to get them to be all-the-time visitors?”

What can we do for people who are visiting us sometimes to get them to be all-the-time visitors?

Ronnie Ramos, Indianapolis Star Executive Editor

The Star is sending out unscheduled “need to know” newsletters when something noteworthy happens – sort of a push-alert newsletter. When high-profile businesses or other institutions open or close, the Star sends such a newsletter, and such emails have a high click-through rate.

Ramos said it may make sense to focus newsletters “around how people are living their lives rather than around topic. For example, do you do one based around ‘Here’s what you need to know before you leave work’?”

Being useful, especially to subscribers

The Medill Local News Initiative revealed its findings to the three news organizations at a two-day conference in December. Understanding their readers and making their content as useful as possible was a major subject of discussion.

Recounting the Tribune’s improvements since that meeting, Taylor noted that readers were hungry for weather news over the winter, and the Tribune ramped up its coverage. The newsroom is also increasing its awareness of different reader needs at different times of the day. In general, Taylor said, the Tribune likes to present “things you need to know” in the morning to help people navigate their day, and then showcase “things that are nice to know” later in the day for going-home commutes and more relaxed evening reading.

On recent major stories such as Jussie Smollett and the mayoral election, the Tribune presented a wide variety of entry points rather than one long catch-all story. This was in line with Medill research suggesting that scanning or “snacking” readers can be loyal subscribers if the news outlet provides an informative, time-saving experience. Another advantage of multiple entry points is that they may keep readers on the website and serve as an antidote to “one-and-done” visits.

“We layered in a lot of the learnings we got from you guys,” Taylor told the Medill Local News Initiative.

The San Francisco Chronicle is working on homepage improvements to induce readers to come back more regularly -- a key goal identified in Medill research.

The Star’s Ramos emphasized the urgent need to deepen connections with subscribers.

“One of the things we’re looking at next (with newsletters) is: What can we do for people who are subscribers?” he said, adding that the goal is “to really make the experience of coming to us more of a membership in a club and less of ‘I’m going to go visit a website.’”

Just a few months after the Medill work, it seems clear that newsrooms are hungry for data-based research that offers guidance.

O’Rourke said the Chronicle is working on homepage improvements “that directly address habit” – the Medill research’s No. 1 finding. Those upgrades may include quick briefings prominently placed on the homepage to help busy readers catch up. But in a rare contrast between approaches, Ramos said the Star is less concerned with the homepage, noting that desktop homepage traffic is slowing and the Star now gets nearly 70 percent of its traffic from mobile.

The data analysis on the Tribune, Chronicle and Star was one of the first major projects of the Medill Local News Initiative, which was launched last year. The initiative is aimed at addressing the crisis in local news by helping news organizations become more financially sustainable so that their work can continue to empower citizens to become more engaged in their communities.

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 eight books on history and photography.

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