Medill’s New Index Puts Spotlight on Rescuing At-Risk Subscribers

Northwestern University’s new Medill Subscriber Engagement Index highlights the need to identify at-risk digital subscribers and find effective ways to reach out to them, from friendly emails to targeted social media to onboarding them better in the first place.

The key to retention is to keep subscribers coming to the website regularly, as shown in past Medill School research. But Medill’s new index goes further into the issue by tracking the level of a newsroom’s engagement with digital-only subscribers and measuring its share of subscribers who are considered at-risk.

Data from the nearly 50 news outlets participating in the index show an average of more than 95% of their subscribers continuing as paying customers every month. But most days those customers are not visiting those websites. At small news outlets, subscribers show up an average of every third day. At large outlets, it’s every fifth day.

Engagement is especially important right now as local news outlets try to keep the many people who subscribed at the outset of the pandemic, according to Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

“Virtually everyone who signed up last year has decided to stick around and is continuing to pay for local news. So that is a huge net positive,” Franklin said. “… Yet there are some numbers in the index that I think indicate local news organizations can be doing more to retain those readers a little longer.”

The Medill index was developed by the Medill Spiegel Research Center in conjunction with the Medill Local News Initiative, a project to promote financial sustainability and community service for local journalism.

Looking at some of the individual properties, some have reader regularity rates down around three times a month. And then there are a number of them with reader regularity rates well into double digits.

Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean, Northwestern’s Medill School

Franklin, who heads the initiative, said the reader regularity rates vary considerably among news outlets tracked in the index.

“Looking at some of the individual properties, some have reader regularity rates down around three times a month,” said Franklin. “And then there are a number of them with reader regularity rates well into double digits per month, which would indicate a pretty engaged reader.”

Medill’s subscriber index divides news outlets into three tiers based on their size. Tier 1, the category for large newsrooms, shows a monthly retention rate of 95.4% and an average of 5.7 days visiting per month. For the mid-sized outlets in Tier 2, monthly retention is at 95.7% and average days visiting per month is 9.2. For the small outlets in Tier 3, it’s 96.2% and 10.5 days.

Why do smaller outlets attract their subscribers more regularly?

“I think we’ve seen from the research we’ve done and the data mining that folks in smaller communities tend to look at their local news organizations as a one-stop shop,” Franklin said. “They turn to that outlet for local news, for local events, for local sports, but they’re also more likely to read national and international news in that publication. In larger markets, there’s certainly in many cases a lot more competition for those eyeballs, for readers’ time, so I think that’s a big factor. And I think that in those markets a number of folks tend to turn to secondary sources for national and international news, whether it’s the New York Times or Washington Post or Wall Street Journal or CNN or other major national news outlets.”

Medill research has found that regular visits to a website are more important for retention than the number of stories that subscribers read when they get there. Mark Campbell, Chief Marketing Officer for Hearst Newspapers, said he has observed that, too.

“All else equal, I’d rather have somebody who visits every day and reads one article than someone who visits once a week and reads seven articles,” Campbell said. “Those two people provide the same number of page views, but the one who has a habit of daily usage is going to be a better retained customer, generally speaking.”

Identifying the Less Loyal

The Medill index tracks both subscribers and registered non-subscribers and assesses whether they are “at-risk” or “established” based on their regularity. “At-risk” means two or fewer visits per month; “established” means more than two visits. At the big-market outlets tracked in Medill’s index, the at-risk subscriber share is particularly high, perhaps reflecting more frequent use of deep discounting in which subscribers make less of a commitment.

Industry experts believe identifying and engaging with at-risk subscribers is vital to keeping retention high. But some outlets are falling short.

Gwen Vargo, Director of Reader Revenue at the American Press Institute, cited a 2020 API survey of local news outlets in which just 42% agreed with the statement that “we identify subscribers who are not engaging/reading content online regularly or at all.”

Yet about twice that number in the survey thought identifying at-risk subscribers was important.

“Folks either aren’t doing it or they’re not good at it themselves,” Vargo said. “But they thought that was valuable.”

Hearst’s Campbell said technical expertise is the obstacle for some outlets.

“Identifying at-risk subscribers is on just about every news organization’s mind,” Campbell said. “I think that the degree to which your data engineering is staffed up and prepared to read all the signals of risk can determine how far along a news organization is on that front.”

Identifying at-risk subscribers is on just about every news organization’s mind.

Mark Campbell, Chief Marketing Officer, Hearst Newspapers

A study by the  Medill Spiegel Research Center last March revealed that 20% of digital-only subscribers did not visit the website they were paying for even once a month, fitting the definition of what industry slang calls “zombie” subscribers. The study also showed that 27% visited two days or fewer, 36% visited seven days or fewer, and 48% showed up 15 days or fewer. When people with hybrid print-and-digital subscriptions were added in, the number of so-called “zombie” subscribers rose to 49%, an understandable result since many of the hybrid subscribers still rely heavily on print.

Nancy Lane, CEO of the Local Media Association, told Medill earlier this year that the high “zombie” number reflects “a certain percentage of people that want to support that local newspaper even if they’re not accessing it as much as you’d want them to.” Spiegel Research Director Ed Malthouse agreed, but said the data show “charity doesn’t last forever.”

API’s Vargo agreed that charitable motives might be a reason for some people to subscribe.

“That method is very prominent when [local news outlets are] asking for money right now … underscoring the importance of journalism as a concept in their community. … That makes sense, if someone is buying a subscription just to keep them going, they may not need to read it and they’ll renew. But it’s hard to know that motivation.”

It’s also possible that for some customers, subscribing was an impulse buy based on a specific, fleeting interest.

“It could be that a number of these readers signed on at ultra-cheap introductory rates and are not your core readership base necessarily but they just sort of took a deal,” Franklin said. “They care about a sports team that’s playing that time of year or a major event that’s coming to town or something situational.”

How to Retain ‘At-Risks’

Like all important relationships, keeping a subscriber requires work.

Franklin said it’s paramount to get subscribers “engaged through regular communications, whether it’s a newsletter, whether it’s an email from the editor or the publisher or even emails from reporters talking about how they cover a beat … or their roots in a community. It could be through news alerts. It could be, in some cases, through text messaging. It could be through events. The central point is that reader retention needs to be at the center and play a prominent role in strategy.”

Ken Herts, Chief Operating Officer of the Lenfest Institute, said email can be simple and effective.

“Send an email saying, ‘Did you see this great article as part of your subscription?’” Herts said. “This gets down to the concept of giving the right message to the right person at the right time.”

One advantage of email outreach is that it’s a contact with the customer that’s not directly related to money.

“You have to be able to reach out to people and not ask for money,” Vargo said. “… You have to be able to show all of the value and all the things you’re getting.”

You have to be able to reach out to people and not ask for money.

Gwen Vargo, Director of Reader Revenue, American Press Institute

Another way to encourage engagement by at-risk subscribers is to pay for boosted social media posts.

“Certainly email is practically free if you’ve got the permission from a subscriber,” Hearst’s Campbell said. “But the benefit of Facebook is you can reach that at-risk subscriber on a platform when they’re doing something else and remind them of the value of the content by getting a headline right in front of them.”

Campbell explained how that works:

“You have some sort of at-risk model that helps you in your own data identify a subscriber who perhaps has lost their daily habit, lost their way, so to speak. You load a file of email addresses into what’s known as a custom audience on Facebook. Facebook looks for those email addresses in its database and matches about half of them. So now you’ve got an audience in Facebook that’s called your at-risk subscribers. To that audience, you can boost sponsored posts, meaning your newsroom posted organically every single day and now your content marketing team is paying to boost that content against that custom audience of at-risk subscribers.”

It’s also helpful to encourage new subscribers with emails and social media even when they don’t seem at-risk.

“I’ve run campaigns that were not only targeting at-risk subscribers but also new ones to help them build habits,” said Campbell, who was Chief Marketing Officer at Tribune Newspapers before joining Hearst.

If a news subscriber’s interest is “situational,” as Franklin put it, then broadening the appeal of the product is important.

“We saw this a lot with both Covid and the election before that,” said API’s Vargo. “Folks would come for ‘the Trump bump’ or Covid. We also know that people aren’t staying just for that coverage, so publishers that are good at this are able to know that if people are local, maybe dining and food might be something that they’re likely to respond to. It’s trying to find other things.”

Proper onboarding of new subscribers can give a publisher more retention tools, Campbell said.

“Through that onboarding, the more you can get permission to talk to that subscriber in a number of platforms, the easier it’s going to be to reach out to them if they become quiet in their engagement,” Campbell said. “As an example, get them to download the app and make sure they accept push alerts for breaking news. Set up desktop notifications so that when breaking news hits, it pops up on their browser.”

And don’t forget your best customers.

“The at-risk subscribers, they’re the ones against whom you might be spending more time and money on content engagement, sending more emails, getting in front of them on Facebook, as an example,” Campbell said. “But at the other end of the spectrum, your loyal subscribers are the ones who might be advocates for your brand who are referring it to their friends and family.”

Retention Rates and Deep Discounts

Even small changes in retention rates can have major impacts on the bottom line. If the rate is 94%, subscribers stay for an average of about 17 months. If it’s 96%, they stay for an average of 25 months.

That’s why retaining customers is so important.

Lenfest’s Herts, a former Vice President for Finance of the Dow Jones Consumer Media Group, which included the Wall Street Journal, said he suspected the retention rate of about 95-96% in the Medill index would have been slightly higher if not for deep discounting that attracted subscribers who were more likely to “churn.” Excluding such discounting, he thought local news outlets would average 3-3.5% churn. He also said, “I think the top publications can get it to 97-to-98%.”

So if subscribers who take advantage of deep discounting are more churn-prone, why offer such deals?

Because they can work, Herts said.

As an example, Herts cited an experiment at a major metro news outlet that “went to $1 for six months as their introductory offer. Their goal was to see if that six-month introductory offer led to more full-priced subscribers after a year than their prior four-week introductory offer.  The six-month introductory offer resulted in triple the initial sign-ups. Within two months after the six-month offer expired and readers were converted to full price, they lost about 40% of the subscribers, so attrition of about 20% per month. After that, the remaining 60% were paying full price and churn was closer to a normal rate for them of 3% per month excluding introductory offers. For the old short-term introductory offer, they lost fewer subscribers upon conversion to full price — 20% total in the first two months, or about 10% per month, followed by normal churn rates. But given the higher initial sign-ups, the long-term introductory offer resulted in more total subscribers after one year than with the short-term offer.”

The Cross-Platform Factor

While reader regularity metrics are helpful in measuring customer loyalty, Campbell said news organizations should also look at whether subscribers are accessing content in multiple ways.

“If you really want to understand a full engagement picture, you should understand how frequently she goes to the app, opens up an e-edition, visits the site, and reads the email newsletter,” Campbell said. “And some of those are easier to measure than others. So I think cross-platform measurement matters a lot when you want to fully understand the engagement that drives retention.”

Cross-platform use suggests that a person has embedded it into their lifestyle more deeply.

”I think that it means they’re interacting with your content in multiple ways at multiple times of the day, and on different devices,” Campbell said. “So you could imagine a digital subscriber who devours the e-edition on her tablet when she wakes up in the morning, stays current with updates through the day via app push alerts, reads a roundup of what happened in the day’s news via a newsletter and then clicks through on her laptop to the website. That would be an ideal and fully engaged subscriber!”

The news outlet’s goal is to make its product as valuable to the subscriber as possible – which also makes the subscriber as valuable to the news outlet as possible.

“For news organizations and really for any company,” said Medill’s Franklin, “it’s much more efficient to hang onto readers that you already have than to try to acquire new readers. I think a number of news organizations become obsessed with adding subscribers – and that’s important – but what’s really important is retaining the subscribers that you have. When you’re seeing a low monthly number of days that people are consuming content, it’s cause for concern. And I think it should be a call to action for news organizations to do what they can to better engage their current subscribers to keep them in the fold.”

Inquiries about the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index can be sent to

Article image by Himanshu Pandey used under Unsplash license (Unsplash)

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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