Finding ‘missing’ readers: 7 papers try sports-only digital subscriptions

September 17, 2018
Category: Newsletters

Selling sports; buying Time magazine; a new $20 million local journalism fund; the Nike rule

As an 11-year-old starting a new life in Miami with his family from Nicaragua, Alex Mena caught a glorious year in 1984 following the Miami Dolphins, who went all the way to the Super Bowl. 

Now the Miami Herald's sports editor, Mena has been eager to lure new fans to his paper. The Herald was the first of 30 McClatchy daily papers to begin SportsPass, a new option for South Florida sports fanatics or out-of-towners who don't want to get stopped by a paywall or pay full-freight for everything the Herald posts. For just $30 for the first year (and $50 thereafter), they get unlimited sports stories from the Herald.

Mena said many of the Herald's pro sports and University of Miami Hurricanes readers come from New York, New Jersey and Britain. "One of my Dolphins reporters," he said, "has more than 12,000 followers in England."

For these readers, “it really doesn’t make sense for them to subscribe to the whole paper when they just want sports,” Mena said.

Over the past five weeks, McClatchy has rolled out SportsPass to its newspapers in six other markets — Kansas City, Raleigh-Durham, Columbia, Charlotte, Tacoma and Boise — and will be adding more, said Grant Belaire, the company's vice president for digital audience development. "Every time we stand one up, we get better," he said.

Belaire sees this as a first step to capture those missing readers "in the middle," who might reach those paywall limits but won't pay for the full subscription. One bet is that some SportPass subscribers, if they deepen their affinity for the community, may be eventual candidates to upgrade their subscription. 

Before the mass adoption of paywalls, those out-of-towners often made up a plurality of a regional news site's digital readers. These days, those readers, some of whom may subscribe to a hometown paper and a national outlet or two, are unlikely to deepen ties by subscribing to a regional site.

Apple News, Google's AMP, Facebook's Instant Articles and MSN.com have placed local newspaper articles in their content-management systems to broaden a local newspaper's reach. offering various revenue-sharing or subsciption-promoting inducements. Scroll.in, currently working with USA Today, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed and Slate, is attempting a fast, ad-free experience for $5 a month, with most of that revenue split among its partner news sites.

Mena said the Herald's SportsPass roll-out was easier than expected. He has had to work to capture sports-related business, entertainment or general feature stories for SportsPass readers. A few things Mena's team added after launch, such as a SportsPass subscription button at the bottom of sports stories, have been included for other outlets from the start.

Although widespread efforts have not begun to promote SportsPass, Belaire said he's been pleased at the number of early subscribers, which he did not disclose. Even modest sign-up levels would make a difference for McClatchy, which reported a total of 122,400 digital subscribers among its dailies in July.

In June, Sacramento Bee editor Lauren Gustus unveiled a strategic plan leaning on digital subscriptions. If the Bee grew its digital subscribers from the current 15,000 to 60,000, she said, the paper would reach sustainability.

Quick hits

ANOTHER BILLIONAIRE INVESTS IN JOURNALISM: Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne, are buying Time magazine for $190 million, they announced Sunday night. "The power of Time has always been in its unique storytelling of the people & issues that affect us all & connect us all," tweeted Marc Benioff, whose family purchase is apart from from Salesforce. "We have deep respect for their organization & honored to be stewards of this iconic brand." The deal follows media pickups by billionaires Patrick Soon-Shiong (Los Angeles Times), Laurene Powell Jobs (The Atlantic) and Jeff Bezos (The Washington Post), among others.

A NEW FUND FOR JOURNALISM: The Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism announced Sunday evening the establishment of a Philadelphia-based local journalism accelerator, part of an overall $20 million investment in local news. The two groups, putting in $10 million each, will support leadership programs as well as tech and resource sharing on audience engagement, analytics and revenue models, Poynter's Kristen Hare reports.

ONE TROUBLED SCOOP: The figures in the NYT’s report of the outrageously priced curtains at the outrageously priced Manhattan rental of America’s U.N. ambassador were true. But the original headline, photograph and emphasis on current envoy Nikki Haley were misplaced, the paper acknowledged Friday afternoon. The Times, in an editor’s note atop the significantly reworked story Friday afternoon, noted that Haley had no say in the decision of the previous administration on the rental or the curtains. The widely criticized earlier version of the story, the Times said, “created an unfair impression about who was responsible for the purchase.”

A MANMADE DISASTER: That’s the conclusion of the AP, Quartz and Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism after interviewing or reviewing testimony from 500 families of those who died in the months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Patients caught lung infections in sweltering nursing homes. Bedsores from overwhelmed hospitals led to fatal infections. Dialysis patients and others depending on medical devices died after power cuts made them unable to use them fully, or get to treatment.

‘HOW LITTLE DID WE CARE?’: The quiet closure of a long-troubled mental health facility in a Brooklyn neighborhood — one exposed 15 years ago in a Pulitzer-winning New York Times investigation — is used as a metaphor in this incisive look into lost local coverage of a New York City borough these days. Despite efforts by one local digital outlet, no one knows what happened to the “crazy people” who used to haunt the neighborhood. “It does make me wonder on a daily basis, what else am I missing?” Liena Zagare, editor and publisher of the small local site Brklynr told The Atlantic’s Scott Nover. The bigger question: Has Brooklyn now become a news desert, too?

THE NIKE RULE: After the hand-wringing takes that Nike would be hurt by embracing Colin Kaepernick for a big campaign, the company’s sales jumped — and its valuation went up $5 billion. So I’ve established The Nike Rule. If someone said Willie Nelson’s rep will be hurt by performing at a fundraiser for a Democratic Senate challenger, check it out. Are his sales and downloads down? Event attendance dwindling? Followers deserting his Spotify and other social accounts? Another thought, as one tweeter noted, how much would an 85-year-old pot smoker really care? (Below, the Nike stock price for the past month.)

Nike stock price
The Nike stock price for the past month, through Friday's close. (NYSE)

ENOUGH: Why is it the role of professional women to play clean-up every time a male colleague messes up? By Abigail Libers for Glamour.

ONLINE JOURNALISM AWARDS: The Marshall Project, ProPublica, The Washington Post, Reveal, Miami Herald and The Trace won awards at the end of the annual Online News Association conference in Austin. Here's a full list of winners

THE NEWS FROM URANUS: A controversy has broken out in a Missouri town named after the seventh planet. Is the name of its new newspaper,  The Uranus Examiner, too risqué?

MOVES: Friday was Jemele Hill's last at ESPN after 12 years. Hill, named NABJ's journalist of the year, has started a production company. … Cristina Silva has joined USA Today as enterprise editor on the outlet's national desk.

THE READ: Rosemary O’Hara had a fan, a reader who knew her touches on unsigned editorials for South Florida’s Sun Sentinel. Lin Wallace, 77, suffering from stage four cancer, wanted to tell O’Hara a few things she'd learned while she could. One: Don’t waste your life in spats at work or over things like politics. “Knock it off. Get real,” Wallace told O’Hara. “Learn to like each other and get along with each other. These monumental egos, they get in the way of common sense.” Another thing she told O'Hara: “I had a good life. I have a few really, really good friends. I don’t think you have too many true friends in life.”

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