How The Post and Courier grew digital subscriptions by 250%

Poynter and API teamed up this week to take a deeper look at what’s working in local news. Here, you can read how The Post and Courier grew digital subscriptions, and over at Better News, learn how the Charleston, South Carolina, newsroom used the mini-publisher approach from Table Stakes to create new revenue streams.

In the past two years, The (Charleston, South Carolina) Post and Courier has:

  • Stopped focusing on pageviews
  • Started publishing fewer stories per day
  • Grown digital subscriptions by 250%.

Of course, all those things are connected.

The Post and Courier took part in Poynter’s Local News Innovation program, also known as Table Stakes. (Disclosure: The program is funded by the Knight Foundation, and my coverage of local news is partially funded by Knight.) When staff first started Table Stakes, they were already shifting to become an audience-first newsroom, hosting events and launching a newsletter strategy.

They added growing digital subscriptions to their to-do list.

The Post and Courier had good examples in The Boston Globe, The New York Times and The Washington Post, said Mitch Pugh, executive editor.

“I think we believed that we could do something similar on a smaller scale,” he said. “We believed that we could be The Washington Post for South Carolina.”

The Washington Post said it had more than 1 million digital subscribers as of October 2017. As of last week, The Post and Courier had more than 6,000. But that number grew from 1,700 in the last two years.

Here’s how they did it and what they learned along the way.

They changed what they measured

The Post and Courier started by looking at the skills in the newsroom and the work that newsroom was producing.

Pugh made a mantra out of a line he borrowed from The Boston Globe’s editor, Brian McGrory: “We had to be relentlessly interesting, and we weren’t.” Pugh said. “Maybe 20 to 30% of the stuff that we did could fall into that category.”

Pugh used another borrowed mantra, this one from the Post’s Marty Baron: “If it’s important, it’s our job to make it interesting.”

The newsroom embraced his challenge, he said.

API conducted a newsroom-wide skills assessment within the Post and Courier. The entire newsroom learned and started using Slack and Parse.ly. Staffers moved away from automated newsletters into curated ones. And they shifted what they measured.

Earlier in the Post and Courier’s move to digital, the measure of success was clicks and pageviews.

“It didn’t really fit with the way that most of us were trained and the value that most of us have,” Pugh said.

Staff started focusing on analytics that lead to subscriptions: time spent and engaged minutes. That was an easy shift for journalists who want people to read/watch/listen/see their work.

Related: The Seattle Times is making it everyone’s job to grow digital subscribers

The newsroom now uses Parse.ly, and after everyone was trained in how to use it, each team set goals for unique visitors and engaged minutes.

“We have to prosecute the value of every single story every single day,” Pugh said.

If a story didn’t have 500 unique visitors and at least 1.2 minutes of engaged time, it got reevaluated. That doesn’t mean those kinds of stories just stopped. Instead, staff looked at how the story was written, the headline, the keywords for search and other dials they could adjust.

If after all that, if those pieces still didn’t hit those minimum goals, the newsroom stopped doing them.

One example: crime briefs.

Routine crime stories, even a fatal accident, that automatically would have been a story in the past are not now necessarily a story. The audience wasn’t reading them.

The Post and Courier still cover crime, but the focus now is on trends and solutions, Pugh said, “more the how and why and not just that this happened. That was a tough thing to give up. It was ingrained in our culture; this is what we do.”

They’re publishing fewer stories. Yes, fewer.

The Post and Courier used to publish between 50 and 65 stories a day. Now, it’s more like 30, “and we probably need to be more like 21— that’s what the data tells us,” Pugh said.

But fewer also means more time for in-depth stories.

Blow-by-blow city council stories do OK, for instance, but when the newsroom takes a step back and talks about why something matters, what it means and what’s next, more people read it.

The newsroom shifted beats based on what it heard from the audience, too. Those beats now include affordable housing, growth and development and sea rise.

Pugh’s looking for something readers can’t get anywhere else: expertise and access. Anyone can get the scores from the game, for instance.

“If your expertise about a sport doesn’t come through, if your special access doesn’t come through and show readers something they could not normally access, why are you doing it?”

They scrapped what wasn’t working

After taking part in Table Stakes, Post and Courier staff tried the mini-publisher approach and offered mini-subscriptions to topics including food and college sports.

After about six months, they determined they were cannibalizing from audiences who would pay the full price, about $10 a month, and stopped pushing those subject-targeted mini-subscriptions.

Now, they’re targeting audiences differently.

Food and real estate are among the top sections that convert readers into subscribers, but along with Parse.ly, the Post and Courier uses Piano to target segments of readers, and Mather Listener for breaking audiences into segments of fly-bys, dabblers, enthusiasts and fanatics.

This allows a flexible meter that targets people by their habits. For instance, if you’re a flyby or a dabbler, you’ll get about 4 pageviews a week. If you’re an enthusiast or fanatic, you’ll only get two.  The key there, Pugh said, is that the meter resets weekly, not monthly, which helps drive habits among prospective subscribers and gives the Post and Courier more opportunities to ask people to become subscribers.

They still have a lot of work to do

The biggest issue facing The Post and Courier’s digital subscription success is churn — both intentional and passive.

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds wrote about subscription fatigue last week. In Charleston, about 83 percent of people who unsubscribe do so because their credit card expired.

Pugh said he’s working with the International News Media Association’s program on figuring out how to prevent passive churn.

The other big challenge, Pugh said, is continuing to challenge everything The Post and Courier publishes.

“It’s easy to sort of drift back to your comfort zone,” he said.

Pugh thinks two things have made the success in Charleston possible – local ownership that’s committed to and believes in what the newsroom is working toward, and a newsroom that’s willing to do the work and make the changes.

“When I hear people say that you can’t make it work in local news, that really irritates me,” he said. “You can if you have the right expertise, you’re willing to accept a small profit and you’re tied to the community. You can do it.”

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