Medill Launches Groundbreaking Subscriber Engagement Tool

44 Local News Outlets Across U.S. Participating, With Many More Expected in Coming Months

Northwestern University has launched the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index, a tool that allows local news organizations to see what content encourages subscribers to stick around and lets publishers benchmark their performance against outlets in comparable markets.

Forty-four newsrooms of various sizes across the country are now participating in Medill’s index, and about 100 outlets are expected to be on board by early next year.

Participants include large metro news organizations such as the Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald, mid-tier outlets like The Idaho Statesman and Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call, and smaller markets such as the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette and Belleville (Illinois) News-Democrat.

Many U.S. local news outlets are moving from an advertising-based revenue model to a subscriber model, so acquisition and retention of paying customers is vital to their ability to stay financially viable. Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications has been a leader in research on what drives subscriber retention, and the new index is a major step forward in that mission.

“Reader revenue is now central to the sustainability of local news organizations,” said Tim Franklin, Medill Senior Associate Dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News. “This Medill Index is a powerful tool to help local news leaders measure the behaviors of their paying readers and benchmark with peers across the country.”

Franklin heads the Medill Local News Initiative, a project that promotes strategies to make the local news industry financially stronger and more responsive to its communities. The subscriber index was developed as a key part of the initiative by the Medill Spiegel Research Center, with technical support from Glenview, Illinois-based Deeta Analytics and financial backing from the Google Innovation Challenge. It’s also being supported by the Myrta J. Pulliam Charitable Trust, individual donors to the Medill Local News Initiative and the Spiegel Center’s endowment funds.

I don’t think we’ve had this level of detail on digital audiences and subscribers from such a number of publishers ever before.

Matt Lindsay, President, Mather Economics

An important partner in the subscriber index is Mather Economics, an Atlanta-based company that handles metrics for news organizations and is providing the data for analysis in the index.

“The volume of data is pretty amazing,” said Matt Lindsay, President of Mather. “It’s a unique data set for the industry. I don’t think we’ve had this level of detail on digital audiences and subscribers from such a number of publishers ever before.”

Franklin pointed to the wide array of information that the index offers.

“The index provides regularly updated data on content that’s building reader habit, or driving readers away,” Franklin said. “It also includes dashboards on a wide variety of information, like retention rates, revenue per subscriber and, importantly, how many days per month people are consuming news. In addition, it includes a strategic planning tool that uses current data to predict future results.”

The index measures the behavior of digital-only subscribers. It does not include subscribers with hybrid print-and-digital subscriptions who in many cases use digital infrequently. Participation in the index is free for news organizations at this time.

An example of how the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index displays data on what types of content are promoting subscriber retention and which are not.

A Subscription Scoreboard

The index’s performance indicators include subscribers gained and lost, retention rate, average days per month that subscribers visit the website, what percentage of subscribers remain per month, and what types of devices they use to visit the site. These indicators are updated monthly.

The index also sorts subscribers into segments based on how loyal they are, including whether they are “established” or “at-risk.”

A major benefit of the index is benchmarking. The index doesn’t simply provide performance indicators and segments; it displays them next to the average from participating outlets of comparable size.

“The benchmarking data is one of the things that makes the index so valuable,” Franklin said. “It’s not just ‘How am I doing?’ It’s ‘How am I doing compared to other similarly sized news organizations across companies around the country?’ Several publishers have mentioned how valuable the benchmarking data is to them.”

Several publishers have mentioned how valuable the benchmarking data is to them.

Tim Franklin, Medill Senior Associate Dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News

Ed Malthouse, Spiegel’s Research Director, said the benchmarking can help publishers identify areas in need of improvement – for example, if they lag on converting registered users into paying subscribers.

“You can see if you’re at the top of the class, you can see if you’re at the bottom of the class. And if you’re at the bottom of the class, there must be an opportunity to do better,” Malthouse said.

‘Churn Drivers’

The index’s “churn drivers” display shows outlets what types of content are creating customer loyalty and which are chasing subscribers away. Wondering if your food and dining coverage is helping you build up your subscriber base? Curious whether pro sports or college sports is driving more retention? The index will tell you.

Jonathan Copulsky, Spiegel’s Executive Director, emphasized that the index provides actionable intelligence.

“The tool is meant to give publishers and editorial staff a practical way to think about what action they can take and track their performance,” Copulsky said. “They don’t need the tool to track if subscriptions are growing or not, but the tool helps them understand the ‘whys.’ And use those ‘whys’ to consider remedial action.”

They don’t need the tool to track if subscriptions are growing or not, but the tool helps them understand the ‘whys.’ And use those ‘whys’ to consider remedial action.

Jonathan Copulsky, Executive Director, Medill Spiegel Research Center

He hopes the tool will inspire newsroom discussions such as: “Let’s maybe put another person on the desk focused on this. Maybe we don’t need to do this. Maybe we can rely on wire stories, maybe we need to do our own investigative reporting.”

The index isn’t intended to replace journalists’ good judgment but to bolster it.

“It can complement their editorial instinct and guts with quantitative analysis, which hopefully will give them the opportunity to make choices that achieve the mission of a healthy and vibrant local news industry,” Copulsky said.

Mather’s Lindsay said analyzing content by categories could also help news organizations package their products more effectively.

“Historically the industry has really been focusing on providing a kind of a newspaper, which is a bundle of content topics, six or seven or eight different content verticals – news, editorial, sports, lifestyle, so on,” Lindsay said. “… What most publishers are still selling today is a digital subscription, but I think there are also ways to repackage that content into different product bundles that can appeal to different segments of the audience. I’m hopeful that [the index] will in the long run enable growth of the industry from product innovation and packaging.”

The ‘What-if’ Tool

The subscriber index also features a “What-If” reader equity tool. News outlets can see how their financial results would change if their reader engagement changed. For example, how much extra revenue would they collect if they raised their retention rate by half a percentage point?

“The What-if tool takes the guessing game out of strategic planning,” Franklin said. “It uses current, actual data to predict future results of key decisions.”

Malthouse said the ‘What-if’ tool is informed by business concepts such as customer lifetime value as it calculates how a variety of factors might affect the bottom line.

“If you put $100 in the bank and you get 5% interest, you can forecast the value of that $100 investment today. What’s that going to be worth to me in a couple years? It’s kind of the same way with newspapers. If you make an investment today to acquire some customers, you get the benefit of them subscribing today, but they’re going to pay you money off into the future. … What-If is going to allow you to forecast what’s going to happen to your customer base.”

Lindsay sees great value in this “predictive” feature.

“It’s not only where do you stand today, but what would happen on the margin if you were to, let’s say you were below average in one of these metrics – churn, for instance,” Lindsay said. “Let’s say you were able to bring your churn to the median for your peer group. What would that mean to you from a revenue and volume standpoint?”

A Daunting Challenge

Development of the index was a major undertaking.

“The vision for this index was exciting,” Franklin said. “Actually building it, however, was a monumental and endlessly complex proposition. It required a great data partner, which we have in Mather. It necessitated the cooperation of media companies to share their valuable anonymized data. And then it took the data science expertise of Spiegel and Deeta Analytics to pull it all together. This is the kind of project that would only work at an institution like Medill.”

Along with the task of handling such huge data sets, getting the information from various news outlets into a standard format was tricky business.

“The data that we’re capturing from publishers is subscriber data, and that data is in different systems and has different field names, and sometimes different fields are meaning different things to different companies,” Lindsay said. “So there was a pretty significant amount of data standardization and normalization. We had to make sure that we were configuring the data fields that we were receiving in the way that makes them consistent so you can compare them across publishers.”

And then there’s the problem of inconsistent story tagging.

“A parallel effort which was challenging is that content is categorized by publishers in very different ways,” Lindsay said. “A lot of it is by meta-tags. So when an article is published it will have some category of content, and then it may have some other descriptors that talk about what it is. But those vary enormously across different publishers. The Medill group put together a taxonomy of content and algorithms for assigning an article to one of those content categories.”

We’ve made some progress on [tagging of content], and we believe we will continue to make progress over time.

Jonathan Copulsky, Executive Director, Medill Spiegel Research Center

Copulsky expressed optimism that tagging would get more consistent over-all.

“We’ve made some progress on that, and we believe we will continue to make progress over time,” Copulsky said. “And that will bring even more precision to editors and publishers in understanding what kinds of choices they should make.”

Copulsky also had an insight into how the subscriber index reflects on Medill’s identity. In 2011, the Medill School of Journalism added “Media” and “Integrated Marketing Communications” to its name, a move that reflected an evolving approach to the field of study.

“The nice thing about this [subscriber index] project is that it’s a wonderful proof point for Medill about why we’ve got journalism, media and integrated marketing communications,” he said. “Because this project brings together those three elements of who we are as a school.”

Inquiries about the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index can be sent to MedillIndex@northwestern.edu.

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 eight books on history and photography.

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