Lessons from the 'Table Stakes' innovation initiative

In today’s media landscape, you don’t often find pockets of progress amid all the doom and gloom. But check out these numbers:

The Denver Post planned and launched a pay meter and within four months sold 5,100 digital subscriptions and increased loyal readers by 20 percent. The State Journal Register grew its Facebook audience by 10 percent, tripled the number of Instagram followers and had 20,000 podcast downloads. The Beaver County Times created partnerships that led to a 40 percent profit margin on events.

All three newspapers participated in Poynter’s 2017-18 Local News Innovation Program, which concluded this month as newsroom leaders came to St. Petersburg, Florida, to present the results from their yearlong focus on sustainable digital publishing. Twenty newspapers of all sizes from around the U.S. reported increased digital subscriptions, better community engagement, and more intense focus on revenue-generating projects.  

The progress offers good news in what continues to be tough times for newspapers, which include a newsprint tariff and layoffs.

Achieving digital sustainability is a process, and one that many local newsrooms are working toward. But the goal shared among this year’s cohort is to withstand onslaught and learn to thrive. Poynter's Local News Innovation Program, a project of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, combines seven foundational approaches with the principles of “Performance-Driven Change” in order to help organizations achieve better results in the era of digital transformation.

Here are examples of how Poynter’s first Local News Innovation Program cohort applied the approach, called “Table Stakes,” in their own newsrooms.  


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Goodbye page views. Define better metrics and make data-driven decisions.

Newsrooms that looked beyond page views and started analyzing page views per session and session duration, down to the individual reporter, gained key insights into their audience’s behavior.

But successful newsrooms go beyond simply defining engagement metrics; they make results transparent, hold regular analytics meetings and empower their reporters to track their own digital success.

“Before, our approach was try it all, spaghetti on the wall,” Lawrence Journal-World editor Scott Stanford said. “Now, we’re data-driven and audience focused.”

Create audience-obsessed alignment.

Armed with that audience engagement data, the Local News Innovation participants dramatically realigned their content, resources and workflow. Most newsrooms in the program created new or revitalized content streams specific to their audience. In Denver, for example, rising housing costs and explosive population growth led The Denver Post to create a neighborhood vertical. Other newsrooms found that local food and sports resonate better with their audience.  

Committing to content that engages local audiences can mean cutting other content. The Louisville Courier Journal reduced their story volume by nearly 40 percent but increased page views per story by 42 percent, in part because of the success of new verticals like downtown development.

“We’re reporting fewer stories but we’re having a bigger impact because we’re focusing on high-impact pieces and doing a much, much better job of putting them in front of our audience,” said Louisville Courier Journal executive editor Joel Christopher.

Less is more.

Beyond cutting content that wasn’t working, the ‘less is more’ mindset applied to physical space and publishing frequency for a number of program participants. Some organizations sold their office space to save on costs. They took advantage of the move to create open workspaces that allow for cross-departmental collaboration and easy access to publishers and editors.

Other organizations published strategically, dictated by audience behavior rather than print schedules. To accomplish this shift, Anchorage Daily News updated process; they changed print deadlines, reporter schedules and workflows to publish earlier in the day. Beaver County Times pushes content at 7a.m., noon, 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. to match the peaks of their online readership.

Engage offline: events and partnerships.

“Don’t just publish information, invite audiences to come together,” said Durango Herald audience development manager Claudia Laws. The Herald created Durango Diaries, a monthly speaker series on topics ranging from Native American history to teenagers and legal marijuana. The events expanded and engaged audiences the small newspaper hadn’t traditionally reached; their print subscriptions increased by 30 percent.

Events, sponsorships and partnerships grow engagement, but also revenue. Michigan.com, the operations company of the Detroit Free Press, created a profitable events business, increasing event revenue by nearly 50 percent and selling more than 47,000 tickets in 2017.


SIGN UP NOW TO PARTICIPATE: Poynter will begin accepting applications for the 2018-19 Local News Innovation Program in June. Organizations must complete the live online group seminar, “Creating an Audience-Focused, Digital-First News Organization: Intro to Table Stakes,” this May to be eligible for the program.


Open your mind: selling your services and products.

You can sell tickets to events, like the Detroit Free Press, or sell your own digital services, as the Tyler Morning Telegraph did. You can even sell sports gear, an initiative of the Lawrence Journal World. The key is, you can sell more than your reporting.

The Tyler Morning Telegraph created and launched a digital services agency that is separate from its advertising department and uses a consultative approach to sell a specific group of products, like sponsored video. The new division is on track to achieve $350,000 in new revenue within one year.

Lawrence Journal World has two websites, LJWorld and KUsports. With significant competition for sports reporting in Kansas, a digital subscription model didn’t make sense for this side of their business. Instead, Lawrence Journal World pursued revenue sharing agreements with downtown vendors for Kansas University gear. By adding direct e-commerce sales to their site, they were able to diversify and grow their revenue.

Don’t fear the pay meter.

“Our biggest concern was losing ad revenue,” said The Virginian-Pilot president and publisher Pat Richardson. “We didn’t. But we did grow subscriptions by 23 percent year over year by adding a pay meter.”

Most newsrooms in the program added a pay meter or experimented with the number of free articles allowed per user per month (five worked best for many). Experiment to see what works for your audience. It pays off.

Transparency and clear vision help with staff morale.

“From the start of this program to today, everything has changed,” said Mitch Pugh, executive editor at Charleston, S.C.'s Post and Courier. Change, even if it’s positive, can be hard. Though all newspapers reported sweeping changes to their processes, many also saw a re-energized and motivated workforce. How is that possible?

It’s a basic management principle. Morale is high when mission and vision are clear and everyone understands how they’re being measured. When management has a plan, that is supported by data everyone can see, staff can breathe. Your employees can focus on doing their job, not wondering if the newspaper is in decline.

For more, see what's worked in Dallas, Minneapolis, Miami and Philadelphia.

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    Mel Grau

    Mel Grau is the marketing communications writer at The Poynter Institute. 

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