Northwestern University’s Medill Local News initiative, whose data analysis has identified reader habit as vital to retaining online subscribers, is taking its research findings on the road to help the journalism industry navigate a shift in its reliance from advertising dollars to reader revenue.
Medill and its partners will discuss the research findings and the paths forward for local news at three major conferences in the next two months – the Newspaper Association Managers on Aug. 1 in Montreal, the News Leaders Association on Sept. 10 in New Orleans, and the Online News Association on Sept. 12, also in New Orleans.
“We’re in the midst of truly momentous shifts in the business model for local news,” said Senior Associate Dean Tim Franklin, head of the Medill Local News Initiative. “As a result, there’s intense interest in the industry right now in the behaviors of digital readers who are paying for local news. And that’s what our research is all about. We took a deep, inside look at subscriber and reader data, and the findings tell a story that has relevance for local news organizations across the country. We hope to tell that story in a way that helps local news organizations navigate through the turbulence of these historic changes.”
We’re in the midst of truly momentous shifts in the business model for local news.Tim Franklin, head of the Medill Local News Initiative
With much of the revenue from online advertising going to big tech companies like Facebook and Google, many local news organizations are seeking financial stability through reader-based revenue models, especially digital subscriptions.
A major study of digital subscribers was conducted by the Spiegel Research Center at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Spiegel analyzed 13 terabytes of data from three news organizations: the Chicago Tribune, Indianapolis Star and San Francisco Chronicle. Subscribers were more likely to keep their subscriptions if they regularly visited the news outlet’s site and if they consumed local news frequently. But in a surprise to some, subscribers who read a lot of stories and read them more deeply were not more likely to keep their subscriptions.
When the research was released in February, Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute, said the Medill analysis was highly relevant to the industry’s pivot to reader revenue. “What you’re talking about here in this research is really a paradigm shift,” he said.
Medill’s Franklin will talk at all three conferences, joined by Ed Malthouse, Spiegel’s Research Director. Appearing with them at both the News Leaders Association and Online News Association (ONA) meetings will be Audrey Cooper, Editor-in-Chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, and Christine Taylor, Managing Editor for Audience at the Chicago Tribune. Ronnie Ramos, Executive Editor of the Indianapolis Star, will help discuss the research at News Leaders, and Amalie Nash, the Vice President for Local News at Gannett, will be part of the presentation team at ONA.
The News Leaders Association is a new organization formed by the merger of the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and the Associated Press Media Editors (APME). San Francisco’s Cooper is conference co-chair.
“When we started planning this year’s conference,” Cooper said, “it was immediately clear to me that we needed to share this [Medill] information with editors from around the country. I feel like we are getting close to cracking open solutions that before we could only use intuition and experience to guess at.”
Michelle Rea, president of the Newspaper Association Managers, said Medill’s work meshes well with research her group is doing in its Relevance Project, an effort to bolster the prominence of her 9,600 member publications in the United States and Canada.
Rea, who is executive director of the New York Press Association, said other groups presenting at the Montreal conference include The Trust Project and Reveal Local Labs.
“All of us need to talk to each other so that we’re all using each other’s language to raise the volume of what we’re doing,” Rea said. “… We can have megaphone power.”
Brian Duff, program coordinator for ONA’s 2019 meeting, said Medill’s program pitch was one of “about two dozen stand-out session concepts” that will serve as the backbone of the ONA schedule.
“Tim Franklin submitted an unusually strong and developed concept during our call for submissions, which I think is plain from how much the initial pitch language resembles our final wording,” Duff said. “… From my perspective, this concept is a clear winner for us, bringing together major news leaders from some of the most important local news outlets in the country, and covering research that is fundamentally relevant to a broad cross-section of our attendees and members.”
Local news in general will be a major focus of the ONA19 conference, which speaks to a larger shift in digital publishing.Brian Duff, Online News Association program coordinator
The Medill session fits in well with the conference’s emphasis, Duff said.
“Local news in general will be a major focus of the ONA19 conference, which speaks to a larger shift in digital publishing,” he said. “Ultimately, we’ve programmed this session for one of our larger ballrooms during a historically popular session block and expect it will be a major draw for attendees.”
The Medill Local News Initiative was launched in 2018 to find ways to sustain local journalism and foster more informed communities.