February 27, 2018

Facebook announced Tuesday a new project aimed at helping local newspapers build digital subscriptions. The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Subscriptions Accelerator puts $3 million and three months into working with between 10 and 15 metro publications, according to a press release.

So far, newspapers that are part of the program are: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Denver Post, The Dallas Morning News, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Omaha World-Herald, The Seattle Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Tennessean, Newsday and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

According to Facebook’s Campbell Brown:

“Participating publishers will convene in-person once a month, receive coaching from digital subscription experts, and participate in weekly trainings covering a broad array of digital subscriptions marketing activities, including but not limited to the use of Facebook. Working with program coaches, publishers will then design individual projects that tackle their unique business needs. Grant funding will empower each publisher to implement solutions that help elevate their subscription business.”

Digital media consultant and journalist Tim Griggs will lead the project, and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism will share case studies of the project through the Local Media Consortium, Local Media Association and the News Media Alliance. (Disclosure: Lenfest helps fund Poynter.)

Several of the newsrooms were part of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, also known as Table Stakes. The Dallas Morning News, The Miami Herald, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Seattle Times all took part in the project which aimed at transforming their newsrooms, including through subscriber revenue. The Boston Globe has identified digital subscriptions as a key to sustainability, too.

The focus is one that has worked elsewhere. Earlier this month, The New York Times announced 10 percent revenue growth for the fourth quarter of 2017. Poynter's Rick Edmonds reported that growth was driven by digital subscriptions. The Guardian and The Washington Post have also had growth there, but it may not be a magic bullet, Lucia Moses reported for Digiday on Tuesday.  

The recurring revenue of subscriptions is attractive, but the economics are hard. It costs money to sign up and hold on to a subscriber; turnover is highest in year one, and it can take a few years before a subscriber is considered hooked. Publishers can look overseas for growth, but will probably have to discount the price to appeal to people outside their home market, which cuts into overall subscription revenue, (Raju Narisetti, CEO of Gizmodo Media Group) said.

Facebook’s Journalism Project worked with local non-profit and for-profit online newsrooms last year and offered a variety of local news products. This year, it offered a new way to find local news, and announced a new focus on local news after announcing people would be seeing less news in their newsfeeds.  

“We often talk to publishers about what the future of journalism looks like and local news publishers tell us that digital subscribers are critical to the long-term sustainability of their business,” Brown wrote for Facebook. “We know Facebook is one part of the strategy to engage readers and ultimately drive paid subscriptions.”

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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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