December 14, 2017

When Ryan Nakashima covered the media for the Associated Press, he saw the entertainment industry do something new. For a subscription fee, you could skip the ads.

At the same time, digital news sites were becoming littered with pop-ups and auto-play ads. News organizations weren’t trying the ad-free or ad-light models the entertainment industry was testing.

“I began to wonder whether they were unable to experiment, unwilling, or just didn’t have the right tools,” Nakashima told Poynter in an email. “My hunch has been the latter and I continue to think that’s true. The go-to analytics platform for many publishers continues to be Google Analytics, and although there’s a wealth of data and customization in there, the default settings point to Google’s immense prowess delivering ads to targeted audiences. So I think getting into the weeds and doing something to correct this lack of tools and an analytical framework is necessary and still worthwhile.”

Nakashima will get into those weeds thanks to a $13,000 grant from the Jim Bettinger News Innovation Fund. You can read about the other four projects here. The grants go to alumni from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford. The Knight Foundation provided funding to get the program started in 2016. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation funds my coverage of local news.)

Nakashima, a 2017 JSK fellow and a technology reporter for the Associated Press, will work with the Bay Area News Group to test how users respond to ad-free and ad-light experiences.  

“Like other newspaper companies, print revenue is troubled and they need to find a way to boost subscriber revenue digitally," Nakashima said. "That is their long-term strategy. While digital ads are still a lucrative business, I think industry-wide, the writing is on the wall that future growth may be limited here and every company that is not Google or Facebook will be fighting a zero-sum game over the same slice of pie.”

Next week, they’re launching a custom-built ad that users can close. It will take over the page, then disappear eventually if not closed. Nakashima has added code to see who closes it, who leaves it up and who clicks through.

They’re hoping to find out if the people who close the ad read fewer pages than people who don’t.

“Perhaps those are the kind of people who would value having fewer or no ads on the page. Perhaps they’d even pay for the cleaner experience. That’s the ultimate question,” he said. “If you give a person a better experience on the website, can you more easily convert them to being a subscriber?”

The work is a continuation of something Nakashima started at Stanford. He’ll share early results in January on Medium.

It all comes at a good time for the Bay Area News Group, which includes The Mercury News and the East Bay Times. BANG has been part of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative. That program (which you can read more about here, here, here and here) brings together newsrooms to figure out how to transform.

That project has made BANG much smarter in how they think about digital subscriptions, said Neil Chase, BANG executive editor, via email. Working with Nakashima now is a big bonus.

“He has become a fully integrated part of our team," he said, "spending a day a week with us and testing his ideas while being incredibly helpful as we navigate this crazy new world."

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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