Webinar Highlights How Gannett Is Using Medill’s Research Findings

A recent webinar for the News Media Alliance highlighted how research by Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative has helped the Gannett news chain come up with new strategies to attract and keep digital subscribers.

Gannett’s Indianapolis Star was part of a project last year in which Medill analyzed 13 terabytes of data from the Star, Chicago Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. The key takeaway: Creating a regular reader habit was paramount in retaining subscribers. The study uncovered a number of other findings, and Gannett executives participating in the webinar cited their related initiatives, such as developing news summaries, offering “ad-free or ad-lite” news products, and using a “loyalty measurement” that measures reader regularity.

“We’ve benefited immensely from this work that Northwestern’s done, just understanding what are the leading indicators that we might look at,” said Heather Perez, Senior Director of Marketing Insights and Data Science at Gannett.

We’ve benefited immensely from this work that Northwestern’s done, just understanding what are the leading indicators that we might look at.

Heather Perez, Senior Director of Marketing Insights and Data Science at Gannett

Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean and head of the Medill Local News Initiative, praised Gannett as a research partner and said the initiative’s goal was to provide insights that empower news organizations both big and small.

“There’s often not the time and resources for research and development at local news outlets, so Medill is trying to help fill that void and in the process share our learnings with you,” Franklin said.

The June 19 seminar was hosted by Rebecca Frank, Vice President for Research and Insights at the News Media Alliance, an Arlington, Va.-based industry group.

Ed Malthouse, Research Director of the Spiegel Research Center at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, explained that many newsroom metrics are “designed for an ad-supported system.” But the industry is shifting from ad reliance to a reader revenue model built largely on subscriptions. “If that’s the focus, we need to be considering what consumers are willing to pay for,” he said.

Mackenzie Warren (center), Senior Director of News Strategy at USA Today Network, participates in Medill's meeting in December 2018 to discuss its research.

The Medill study looked at which reader behaviors were associated with subscriber retention. Along with regular visits to the website, consumption of unique local content was a key factor in keeping subscribers. The analysis also found a surprise: Subscribers who read many stories per visit and read them thoroughly were no more likely to keep their subscriptions than those who skimmed. In some cases, those deep-reading behaviors were correlated with greater churn – people dropping their subscriptions.

“To be honest with you,” Malthouse told the webinar, “I didn’t believe this the first time one of my post-docs brought it in, and I said, ‘Go check your code’ because I didn’t believe it.”

But while that finding seems “counter-intuitive,” Malthouse said, other new research supports it. He believes one possible explanation is that readers may feel overwhelmed.

Both Perez and a second Gannett executive, Mackenzie Warren, Senior Director of News Strategy at USA Today Network, participated in the webinar and cited the influence of the Medill research.

“There are two things broadly that we’ve been doing at Gannett, a.k.a. the USA Today Network, in response to this research,” Warren said. “… One is to be less overwhelming, and the other is to focus, from a total organizational standpoint, more on loyalty.”

In an effort not to “bombard people” with content, Gannett has “cut out a lot of underperforming content,” Warren said.

Our content choices are being driven much more by research than they ever have before.

Mackenzie Warren, Senior Director of News Strategy at USA Today Network

He said the bottom half of Gannett content used to account for only about 6 or 7 percent of overall readership. “What that tells you is, half of your efforts are going for almost no dividend.”

“Our content choices are being driven much more by research than they ever have before,” Warren said.

In another effort to be “less overwhelming,” Gannett is “experimenting with ad-free or ad-lite products,” Warren said. USA Today is not a subscription product online, but “we have thousands of people who are actually paying us every month for an ad-free or ad-lite version of usatoday.com. And that points up some potential later on down the line in our local markets.”

Warren said Gannett was also working on ways to satisfy scanning readers with news summaries.

“Some percentage of people are really deep, immersive readers, but most are scanners,” Warren said. “And so being able to deliver a lot of information in a very scannable, readable way is something that we’re working on as well.”

Because creating reader habits is so important, the Medill Local News Initiative has been highlighting emailed newsletters as a smart tactic to remind readers to visit news websites.

Warren said Gannett’s newsletters are starting to include “messages from journalists that are talking about sort of personal appeals to why subscribing to us is not just a good thing for the consumer but actually does an important good in the community and can be seen as an act of community building and community service. Those appeals have shown early promising signs of success.”

Heather Perez (center), Senior Director of Marketing Insights and Data Science at Gannett, talks with other news executives at a Medill Local News Initiative gathering in December 2018.

Getting beyond a click mentality is vital

“We’re very focused now in our newsrooms on data points that aren’t just volume things like page views,” Warren said. “We have a loyalty measurement, which is: How many of our readers come back within a three-day span for a second visit.  We have goals that we have identified for each of our newsrooms around that particular statistic because we see that that drives more subscription. …

“Each one of our newsrooms has goals about getting people to the orders pages for digital subscriptions,” Warren continued, “and from there it’s the job of other people in our organization to close the deal. But that’s a new thing that happened in our organization, partly driven by the Northwestern University research. And that’s helped us ultimately as an organization in total to focus much more on churn and much less on subscriber acquisition.”

Gannett’s Perez emphasized how a focus on reader revenue changes news organizations’ approaches.

“The Northwestern research really helped in opening everyone’s eyes to the fact that when you’re looking at traffic or any of our engagement metrics online you really do need to make a distinction between paid subscribers and everybody else,” she said.

An audience member at the webinar asked what smaller news outlets could do if they didn’t have the technical support of a major national player.

There are things that can be done by smaller news organizations that fit the goals that we’ve identified in this project without a big investment.

Senior Associate Dean Tim Franklin, head of the Medill Local News Initiative

Medill’s Tim Franklin answered this way:

“There are things that can be done by smaller news organizations that fit the goals that we’ve identified in this project without a big investment. So, for example, making your home page more accessible and maybe doing news-summary versions in addition to long form. Story summaries for the home page is something that makes a lot of sense to address the issue of being overwhelming. I think the other thing is that we’ve identified that building habit is the single most important predictor of subscriptions, so then the question becomes: What are the tactics and strategies that help a news organization build habit? And one of them, and maybe the main one, is newsletters. And newsletters, with some software that’s out there now, are really not that difficult for any size news organization to produce.”

The Medill Local News Initiative and its research partners will share their insights at three industry 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.

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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