March 1, 2021

The article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.

Nearly half of local news outlets’ digital subscribers are “zombie” readers who visit the website less than once a month, according to a data analysis in 45 markets by Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center.

Spiegel found that 49% of subscribers didn’t go to the websites they had paid for even once a month, putting them in a category known in news-industry slang as “zombies.” Concern is growing about this problem because even though the living dead may still pay for local news, they seem like a weak foundation to build a future on.

The infrequency of web visits was especially common among people with combined print and digital subscriptions, but a fifth of digital-only subscribers also were counted as “zombies.”

The industry has long been concerned about unengaged subscribers, but the extent of the problem has not been widely known. An article on the Better News website drew gasps last week by reporting that The Arizona Republic was facing a 42% “zombie” population when it started a subscriber retention campaign a few years ago.

The 49% figure comes from both digital-and-print subscriptions and digital-only subscriptions at 45 news outlets of various sizes that have provided anonymized data to Spiegel for research purposes. When the digital-only subscribers were analyzed separately, the “zombie” subscription figure fell to 20%.

The over-all 49% figure suggests that many readers with digital-and-print subscriptions lean heavily on print while using their online access infrequently. Though this may be comforting for news outlets because many digital “zombies” remain active print consumers, it may also be a worrisome sign for an industry that hopes to develop stronger online habits for the long term.

Spiegel’s analysis found that while 49% of over-all digital subscribers didn’t visit even once a month, 54% visited the website just one day a month or fewer, 58% visited two days or fewer, 69% visited seven days or fewer, and 79% showed up 15 days or fewer.

Corresponding percentages for digital-only show that while 20% of digital-only subscribers didn’t visit even once a month, 24% visited just one day a month or fewer, 27% visited two days or fewer, 36% visited seven days or fewer, and 48% showed up 15 days or fewer.

Spiegel’s new analysis also backs up its groundbreaking finding in 2019 that reader regularity is the paramount factor in whether subscribers stick around or churn. In this new analysis, Spiegel found that subscribers who visited the website once a month or fewer were far more likely to drop their subscriptions than those who read more often.

“Old habits are hard to break and new habits are rarely formed by accident,” said Jonathon Copulsky, Spiegel’s executive director. “Our analysis suggests that purposefully creating the habit of regularity among digital subscribers is the single most important factor for news organizations to focus on if they hope to grow digital revenues.”

Spiegel is participating in the Medill Local News Initiative, a three-year-old project at the Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications that promotes financial sustainability in local journalism. Spiegel’s data analysis on local news outlets is about to take a major step forward with the launch of the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index, a tool that will give local news outlets more actionable intelligence on their readers than ever before.

How to reform ‘zombies’

Malthouse said there are steps that news outlets can take to turn “zombies” into avid readers. News outlets have become more attentive about the onboarding process and reaching out to new subscribers if they don’t make much use of the product they’ve recently purchased.

Also, Malthouse said, “Newsletters are really important because if people aren’t coming to you, then maybe you should go to them.”

“If you can succinctly curate the news for me, give me a short newsletter that I come to rely on to stay updated, then you’ve got my loyalty,” he said. “What we’ve shown in our other analyses is, if you subscribe to these newsletters, you’re also less likely to churn.”

Also, Malthouse said, “We need better recommender systems,” such as emails that tell a customer when there’s news on a subject they’ve followed in the past.

“News organizations need to do a much better job of helping readers find the stories that they’re interested in,” he said. “Most places cede this to Google.”

The point of the Better News story by Gannett’s John Adams and Alia Beard Rau was that a news outlet can lower its percentage of “zombies” by taking concrete steps, as The Arizona Republic did with the help of the Gannett-McClatchy Table Stakes program. The 42% zombies number came from March 2019, when the Republic’s percentage of “loyalists” was 26%. “Loyalists” were defined as subscribers who visited the site at least once every three days and accounted for 20-plus page views over a seven-day period.

By February 2020, those numbers had flipped: 42% of the Republic’s subscribers were “loyalists” and 26% were “zombies.” The Republic achieved that change “while increasing the subscriber pool by 63% and reducing our overall churn rate by more than a percentage point,” according to Adams and Rau.

Padding the statistics?

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for Poynter, suggested that some news outlets may not mind “zombies” so much if they help their statistics.

“I have suspected publishers of doing this to pad their paid digital sub growth numbers,” Edmonds said. “Of course the cost of serving one more ‘zombie’ in the electronic era is zero.”

But the customer lifetime value is far less, Malthouse said, citing Spiegel’s analysis.

“If I’m reading you every day, you expect to keep me 14, 15 years,” he said. “If I’m one of these ‘zombies,’ then I’m around maybe two years on the average.”

Another view of “zombies” expressed by the Local Media Association’s Lane is that some of them view their subscription as similar to a charitable contribution.

“I think every community has 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,” she told the Medill Local News Initiative in December.

Malthouse conceded that “I’m sure there’s some of that going on.” But he added: “What we’re showing in this (research) is charity doesn’t last forever. A news organization’s mission is to inform the public and to report on what matters to the community, and so to create value by offering stories that people want and need to read.”

In any case, awareness of “zombies” is clearly on the upswing.

Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” reacted to The Arizona Republic’s 42% statistic with a relatable excuse, tweeting:

“i think i’ve lost the passwords for 42% of the digital outlets i subscribe to.”

This article was updated to include new information about digital-only subscribers.

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Mark Jacob is editor of the Medill Local News Initiative website at Northwestern University.
Mark Jacob

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