Can Local News Outlets Ride the Wave of New COVID-19 Subscribers? ‘This Is a Moment of Reckoning’

Local news outlets are working hard to keep the digital subscribers they’ve gained from COVID-19 coverage, and they’re seeing encouraging signs that the newcomers are sticking with them in these turbulent times.

As news outlets shift away from an advertising revenue model, subscriber retention is an increasingly crucial issue. Newsrooms are engaging these new customers through personal email appeals and giving special attention to “zombies” – a nickname for people who buy subscriptions but never become active news consumers.

The huge news stories of 2020 – both the pandemic and the more recent protests over police misconduct – are forcing newsrooms to rethink how they approach these stories from both journalistic and marketing perspectives.

For example, there are differences of opinion about whether creating new products such as podcasts and newsletters for emerging news stories is a sound idea, or whether steering these new customers into existing products is a smarter long-term strategy.

These crises are also making news outlets consider new consumer concerns. One news executive told the Medill Local News Initiative that COVID-19 may have boosted digital subscriptions because people wanted to avoid introducing foreign objects – such as printed editions of newspapers – into their homes.

This digital subscriber surge has shown that people place great value on local journalism in a time of crisis, said Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

There has been a massive reawakening about the critical role of trustworthy, timely local news and information.

Tim Franklin, head of Medill Local News Initiative

“There has been a massive reawakening about the critical role of trustworthy, timely local news and information,” said Franklin, who heads the Medill Local News Initiative. “Is this the beginning of a transformational movement toward a sustainable, reader revenue-focused business model for local news? Or is it a blip? We’ll know the answer in the next few weeks and months.”

To be sure, this is a make-or-break time for local news.

“This is going to be the moment that fundamentally shifts how journalism is funded,” said Chicago Tribune Managing Editor Christine Taylor. “In order to get people to subscribe, you have to be providing value, and I think that’s where this is a moment of reckoning for us.”

Early positive signs

A Medill Local News Initiative story in March reported that news outlets gained digital subscribers even though they dropped their paywalls on much coronavirus content. It’s still too early to tell whether they will keep most of these new digital subscribers. But they’re seeing “stickiness” so far.

Amalie Nash, Vice President for Local News at the nation’s biggest newspaper chain, Gannett, said that when they compare the pre-COVID period (from Dec. 30 to March 8) with the time period when the pandemic dominated the news (March 9 to June 5), they’re seeing an encouraging increase in “net adds” – new subscriptions minus cancellations.

Net adds were nearly double the earlier period – up 85% over-all for Gannett, which merged with GateHouse late last year. At the legacy Gannett news outlets, net adds were up 79%. At the former GateHouse papers, they rose 97%.

Nash said the impact would come into sharper focus soon. It has been about three months since the COVID-19 story exploded, and Gannett’s introductory offers tend to last that long. “Our general offer is to give people a 90-day offer, either a $1 a month for 3 months or $1 for 3 months, just depending on which offer is active at the time,” she said.

Our crisis subs, our coronavirus subs, are retaining at a better rate, 5% better than the group that came to us in January.

Idalmy Carrera-Colucci, Senior Director of Editorial Operations, Tribune Publishing

At Tribune Publishing, which owns the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and other local news outlets, there’s also guarded optimism about subscriber retention.

“Our crisis subs, our coronavirus subs, are retaining at a better rate, 5% better than the group that came to us in January,” said Idalmy Carrera-Colucci, TribPub’s Senior Director of Editorial Operations. “We’re holding onto them at a better rate. Most of them came on with a six-month offer. So that will be the telling point.”

The media and marketing consultancy Piano, which monitors subscriptions at 300 websites in the United States and Europe, reported in late May that new subscriptions were up about 80% and cancellations were 17% lower during the pandemic when compared with pre-COVID months. The decrease in dropped subscriptions, or “churn,” occurred in Europe exclusively while the U.S. numbers were flat. “But even flat is impressive, given the big increase in acquisition,” Piano said.

‘How Do I Give You More Money?’

Both Gannett and TribPub are going all-out on retention efforts.

Gannett has a system to foster engagement by new subscribers. “We put everyone in buckets,” Nash said. “One of them that we’re most concerned about is ‘zombies,’ and those are people who sign up and never come to our site. The next bucket is ‘low usage,’ and so those are people who are obviously not returning to the site very often.” The other two categories are medium and high usage.

Data analysis by the Spiegel Research Center at Northwestern’s Medill School has shown that regular visits to a website are highly correlated with subscriber retention. Spiegel researchers also are looking at retention through a common business forecasting tool called Customer Lifetime Value and finding that holding onto these subscribers at a high rate is vital to the financial futures of news organizations.

To that end, Nash explained, “we have what we call a subscriber nurture series,” featuring a series of emails depending on where subscribers line up on consumption, from “zombie” to high usage.

Establishing a more personal connection with subscribers is key.

“We recently had our editors write email thank-yous to subscribers, which then we converted into some print promo ads for newspapers as well as an on-site thank-you that targeted subscribers that were logged in … and it spoke to specific coronavirus coverage,” Nash said, adding that the emails had “huge open rates and response rates.”

Gannett is also working on “recirculation tactics” including links in story pages to encourage readers to stay on its websites. The goals: to make subscribers more engaged and to turn non-subscribing visitors into paying customers.

We really see our story pages as front pages, if you will, because so few people are viewing home pages.

Amalie Nash, Vice President for Local News, Gannett

“We really see our story pages as front pages, if you will, because so few people are viewing home pages,” Nash said. “… If you could get all your one-and-dones to be two-and-dones, that would make a huge difference in terms of over-all audience who you might be able to capture and ultimately turn into a subscriber.”

The readers are so grateful for the pandemic coverage that they’re asking how they can thank Gannett’s news outlets financially, Nash said.

“We’ve even had people reach out and say, ‘I’m a subscriber. How do I give you more money? How do I buy a subscription for someone else?’”

Tribune’s Task Force

Tribune Publishing’s Chief Marketing Officer, Mark Campbell, formed a subscriber retention task force at the end of 2019. That meant “we were able to move pretty quickly to focusing on our COVID retention efforts,” said Carrera-Colucci.

The task force is testing 20 retention tactics, 11 of them based in its newsrooms.

Like Gannett, Tribune is trying to keep new subscribers engaged with emails. In Chicago, Carrera-Colucci said, “we’re segmenting all new subscribers into a separate distribution list.” They will receive all the breaking-news emails that other readers get, but they’ll also get “don’t miss” emails with non-breaking articles that might be of interest.

“We’re going to use those emails to get them in the door more often,” she said.

Tribune wants to make sure that the subscribers who came aboard because of COVID-19 coverage are aware of other things the news outlet has to offer.

“We don’t want them to think that the value of their subscription [is] tied only to coronavirus coverage,” Carrera-Colucci said. “We also want them to start to make these connections with the voices in our newsrooms, both editorial [and] opinion, really with the people that are behind the stories, behind the columns, so that they feel sort of a personal connection, a personal relationship. … We feel that ultimately that will help us retain them.”

We don’t want them to think that the value of their subscription [is] tied only to coronavirus coverage.

Idalmy Carrera-Colucci, Senior Director of Editorial Operations, Tribune Publishing

Are these new subscribers like those who came aboard before the pandemic?

“Early on, we saw this kind of break up into two groups: the people who were already familiar with the brand, engaging with the products, knew us, were coming to us for other things,” she said. “They were known to us. They were not anonymous users, but they just hadn’t subscribed. They were on the cusp. That got them. That group looks and behaves a lot like our existing subscriber base, and they early on were doing a much better job at engaging across other topics. When there was Bears news, they were going there. When there was food and dining news, they were going there. And then there was this new group that really was just only coming for coronavirus, and they actually are skewing a little bit younger, not a lot but a little bit younger, more diverse. They’re using different products, they’re entirely mobile. Desktop is not where they’re coming to us. And we started to get them into these other topics.”

Photo by Jenna Braunstein
Christine Taylor, the Chicago Tribune's Managing Editor, talks to participants in a Medill Local News Initiative meeting at Northwestern University in December 2018.

To Create Pop-up Products or Not

Some news organizations, including the New York Times and Washington Post, created special news products devoted to COVID-19 coverage. But the Chicago Tribune didn’t, and Managing Editor Christine Taylor explained why:

“When this first started in early March, you saw a lot of publishers spinning up unique coronavirus-centered products, right? Newsletters or podcasts. I mean, they saw success with that. We had a conversation about whether we should do that. And it was very intentional that we decided to roll those readers who were coming to us through the coronavirus door into existing products so that as this story wore on, they would have exposure to all the things that we were doing. So instead of building up a database of emails that were interested in only a coronavirus newsletter, we were funneling them into our Daywatch newsletter and our breaking-news emails so that they are getting exposure. So now we have really strong growth behind some of our really strongest products, so they’re already locked into that.

“That being said, we did take those products and dedicate certain issues or editions of them specifically to coronavirus. So we added a couple special Sunday sends of Daywatch that really focused on what you needed to know in that moment around all the coronavirus information that was available.”

Newspapers have always operated in content silos that were somewhat dictated by print sections. … The first week into this story, we realized it was a new ballgame.

Christine Taylor, Managing Editor, Chicago Tribune

Coronavirus, and the more recent protests following the police killing of George Floyd, have pushed the Tribune’s newsroom to a more all-hands-on-deck, run-to-the-story approach, Taylor said.

“Newspapers have always operated in content silos that were somewhat dictated by print sections,” she said. “So that can really limit our ability to think about how we cover a community. And even coming into coronavirus, we were still very much that way. The first week into this story, we realized it was a new ballgame. We’re going to pay attention to what the audience cares about, and we’re going to take all these talented resources we have in this newsroom, and apply them to those areas of interest and what the audience is telling us matters right now. Because when it was everything coronavirus, you still have to dig in to all the different threads within that, between health care, economic impact, distance learning. … That in some ways has liberated us in thinking about how we organize ourselves in the newsroom. … We’re going to retain these subscribers because we’re listening to what matters in a different way than we have before.”

Presenters at an American Press Institute summit April 30 emphasized the need for local news outlets to learn from the crisis and maintain a service-oriented approach. Lizzy Hazeltine of the NC Local News Lab Fund and Ariel Zirulnick of the Membership Puzzle Project built off their API presentation with a set of tips headlined “Catching the COVID-19 Bounce.” A key point:

“It’s easier to understand community needs in an emergency moment. But the service journalism you are doing doesn’t have to – and shouldn’t – end as we emerge from a state of emergency,” they wrote. “Coronavirus widened your funnel, and it doesn’t have to go back to its pre-COVID size. Study what prompted the strongest responses from readers, and think about how those needs might show up in the recovery months ahead, or re-emerge if we have another wave of cases in the future.”

Hazeltine and Zirulnick wrote that early communications to new subscribers during COVID-19 might need a different tack than routine welcome messages.

“Your typical onboarding process might not resonate with this cohort, which is likely feeling at best harried and at worst panicked. Consider telling your origin story later, and instead focus on using your welcome email and onboarding process to explain how you’re serving them at this moment and how they can help you do that (including asking for financial support).”

How It’s Done in Hawaii

Another angle on subscriber retention comes from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in Hawaii, a state in a unique position during the pandemic.

“We went from the lowest to the highest unemployment rate in the United States because our tourism sector has been shut down,” said Aaron Kotarek, Senior Vice President for Audience and Operations for Oahu Publications, which publishes the Star-Advertiser.

Even though the Star-Advertiser put pandemic coverage in front of its paywall, “We still have sold just under 1,000 digital-only subscriptions,” Kotarek said. “For us, I think that’s a fairly good number.”

The Star-Advertiser is “print-centric” but has ended delivery of a Saturday paper, he said, adding that a print replica edition on its website has proven popular.

The Star-Advertiser doesn’t deeply discount digital subscriptions like some other news outlets, instead pricing them at about 70% of print-and-digital, Kotarek said. But the Star-Advertiser offers a COVID-19 newsletter for free, and “many thousands” of people have signed up for that, he said.

We are relentless when it comes to retention. We are going to call you, we are going to email you, we are going to text you, we are going to write to you via direct mail.

Aaron Kotarek, Senior Vice President for Audience and Operations, Oahu Publications

“It’s too soon to tell” about digital subscriber retention during the pandemic, Kotarek said, but “we haven’t had a lot of drop-off.”

“We have what I’ll call a customer life-cycle management program that basically sends subscribers via email different messages based on either [their] actions or inactions,” he said.

Kotarek explained the on-boarding process:

“Day One you’re going to get a welcome email. … Maybe a week later, you’ll get another email from us. ‘How are you enjoying utilizing our digital platforms? Are you having any issues with logging on, navigation, etc.?’ One thing we also do too on a daily basis is, we will send you a morning email at 4 a.m. It’ll list what we feel are the top 5 stories in that day’s edition along with an easy-to-click-on tile that will take you immediately to the print replica because we’re trying to engage you as a digital-only subscriber to use the subscription that you paid for.”

That daily email is sent to subscribers automatically unless they opt out.

Kotarek cited a difference between digital subscribers who joined during coronavirus and those who subscribed previously.

“We really break out our digital-only subscribers into three different buckets,” he said. “You either live on Oahu, you live on a neighbor island, or you’re out of state. What we’ve seen since the COVID pandemic began is the majority, and I mean almost all, of our digital-only subscribers have come from Oahu, believe it or not, right here in our backyard. And pre-COVID, it was more of the off-island, neighbor-island variety and the out-of-state variety.”

The pandemic also pushed some people from print to digital, he said.

“I think there was a small segment of people who maybe worried about catching the coronavirus transmitted from a print surface, therefore they said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to view the content on my own devices and not take that risk.’ Even though we know – at least we believe – that the coronavirus isn’t transmitted by newsprint or paper.”

Despite the digital subscriber boost, the Star-Advertiser announced 31 layoffs this month, with about half of its unionized news staff targeted. Amid the financial pressures, keeping customers is essential for the news outlet.

“We are relentless when it comes to retention,” Kotarek said. “We are going to call you, we are going to email you, we are going to text you, we are going to write to you via direct mail.”

Support for Digital-Only Outlets

For small digital-only outlets, the pandemic has boosted subscriptions, memberships and donations.

Neil Chase, Chief Executive Officer of the CalMatters nonprofit that covers California’s state capitol, said his news operation is mostly funded by foundations and individual large donors and “we haven’t done a lot yet to market the membership program.” Even so, his five-year-old news outlet has experienced a membership bump from 1,200 to 1,500 in recent months.

Shortly after the lockdown, CalMatters appealed to its donors for more funding, “and that enabled us to do a number of important things, from adding a public health reporter to translating all of our virus coverage into Spanish,” said Chase, a former Medill professor.

The spike is sustaining and we haven’t dropped back to pre-pandemic levels for May or June.

David Sommers, Publisher, Long Beach Post

California’s Long Beach Post, a for-profit digital-only outlet with no paywall, has gained financial support during the pandemic as it builds “a sustainable local journalism model, well-balanced across grants, reader revenue, sponsored content, an in-house full service digital agency, and traditional digital advertising,” said Publisher David Sommers.

“Reader support revenue is up between 300% and 350%, both in total monetary contributions and the number of individual contributors, since the pandemic began,” Sommers said. “The increases are holding as strong today as during the initial bump in March and early April. The spike is sustaining and we haven’t dropped back to pre-pandemic levels for May or June.”

Sommers said video appeals on social media have been particularly successful in attracting financial support.

Block Club Chicago, which launched two years ago, has gained about 2,000 subscriptions since March 1, bringing its total to 12,500.

The neighborhood news outlet is “freemium,” with some content available only to subscribers but much of it open to everyone. “We’ve always made our breaking crime and emergency news free to everyone as well as our South and West Side coverage. And since the start of the pandemic, all of our coronavirus-related coverage has been free,” said Maple Walker Lloyd, Block Club’s Director of Development and Community Engagement.

Close engagement is the key.

“We get dozens of thank-you emails, tweets and social media messages daily because we’re asking relevant questions at news conferences and providing easy-to-access information,” Lloyd said.

Article image by Olga Maloushkina from Pixabay

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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