Medill’s Small-Markets Study Reinforces Importance of Creating Reader Habit

A Northwestern University data analysis last year on three big-city news outlets showed that a regular reader habit and strong coverage of local news were the key factors for keeping subscribers. But a question remained: Was that true only for major metros, or for local news organizations in general?

Now Northwestern’s Medill Local News Initiative has found part of the answer from a follow-up study on 12 small news outlets. Indeed, the results of both studies strongly endorse reader habit and local news as major factors in subscriber retention. And the analysis of both the big metros and the small newsrooms showed the surprising finding that page views and depth of reading were not major factors in keeping subscribers.

There were some interesting differences, too: National news was more important for subscriber retention in small markets, and sports coverage was less of a retention driver.

Gannett’s USA Today Network partnered with Medill on the small-market study, sharing digital-only subscriber data on 12 Gannett-owned news outlets in Ohio and Indiana. The Spiegel Research Center at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications conducted the research.

The finding about the importance of a regular reader habit – ideally, daily – has helped shape the approaches of the news organizations in the first study, the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star. All three are developing or considering subscriber-only newsletters following discussions with Medill in which emailed newsletters were identified as a key tactic to bring readers to their websites regularly.

The frequency effect is pretty constant across all markets.

Ed Malthouse, Spiegel Research Director

“The frequency effect is pretty constant across all markets,” said Spiegel Research Director Ed Malthouse.

In Spiegel’s analysis, the 12 small news outlets showed reader habit strongly linked with subscriber retention. The graph below shows how the number of days a subscriber reads in a month is related to the percent cancelling their subscription that month. There is a steady decrease between reading for zero days and reading 10 days, with the percentage of subscribers canceling cut by more than half. The cancellation rate holds about steady for subscribers who read between 10 days per month and every day.

Malthouse said the value of “differentiated content” – including local news that readers can’t get elsewhere – was demonstrated in both studies. The small-markets study showed that among those who read no local stories in a month, the percent who cancelled during that month was 0.7 percent. Those who read one local article had a cancellation rate of about 0.4 percent. The cancellation rate decreased to 0.3 percent for those reading 10 local articles, and 0.26 percent for those reading 50 or more local articles.

While sending out several newsletters a day has become a common big-city news tactic to encourage regular readership, lightly staffed small outlets can’t do that. But Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, said small newsrooms can try newsletters in a more limited way.

They could “do it more occasionally … to get the reading option in front of readers,” Edmonds said.

Difference in National News

The differences identified between the metros and the small outlets were illuminating, especially the strong demand for national news by small-market website readers.

“It’s highly associated with retention,” Malthouse said. “Not as associated as local news, but it’s very highly significant. What that tells me is that I think in these smaller places people still go to the local newspaper – it’s their window to the world.”

Edmonds, a former Tampa Bay Times and Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, said the small-market benefit of national news was “a fairly noteworthy finding,” but not necessarily surprising in places where people may be less likely to consume a by-the-second news diet from multiple sources.

You’re not going to get as many wired-up, 24/7 news followers as you would in a big city, with young professionals, people coming and going.

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst, Poynter Institute

“We’re talking about smaller cities, a rural and small-town way of life,” Edmonds said. “You’re not going to get as many wired-up, 24/7 news followers as you would in a big city, with young professionals, people coming and going.”

Edmonds also wondered whether part of the explanation might be that smaller staffs produce less original local content and therefore their websites give greater exposure to wire stories. That’s no put-down on small staffs, said Edmonds, since they have to set priorities and can’t cover everything.

Sports Only So-So

The earlier large metro study found that sports reading was correlated with subscriber retention for Indianapolis and San Francisco, and less so for Chicago. The new small-markets study found that while sports was important for a fraction of the audience, it didn’t move the needle much.

“The surprise here is, sports doesn’t pop,” Malthouse said. “It’s directionally linked to retention but it’s not significant.”

The surprise here is, sports doesn’t pop. It’s directionally linked to retention but it’s not significant.

Ed Malthouse, Spiegel Research Director

In these small markets, “there’s a fairly small segment of people who are interested in sports. It’s like 10, 15 percent of the market. The rest never goes near the sports page,” Malthouse said.

Edmonds questioned whether local sports was enough to sustain small-market readership all week long. “I don’t think there’s much to write about seven days a week,” he said.

The data analysis of 12 Gannett small-market news outlets was conducted several months before the news chain’s August 2019 announcement that it was being sold to GateHouse Media. The $1.4 billion transaction, if approved, will combine the nation’s two largest newspaper chains.

Spiegel’s data analyses are part of the Medill Local News Initiative, launched last year. The initiative is aimed at helping news organizations become more financially sustainable, which in turn will empower citizens to become more informed and engaged in their communities.

Article image public domain by Jost Amman (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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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