John Voket | NENPA eBulletin | February 25, 2020
Straight out of E&P Publisher Mike Blinder’s keynote at the 2020 New England Newspaper Convention Feb. 7, a motivated group of several dozen publishers, editors and staffers headed to a Publisher’s Panel on Leading Innovative Initiatives moderated by former NENPA Director and Vermont Standard Publisher Dan Cotter.
Cotter got the session started and kept the conversation moving with thoughtful and relevant questions as panelists each hit on a number of innovations happening at their companies that are moving – or pegging – the needle with good outcomes.
Panelists included Autumn Phillips, Managing Editor of The Post and Courier in Charleston, SC; Liz White, Publisher & EVP Record-Journal Media Group in Meriden, Connecticut; and George Arwady, Publisher and CEO of The Republican in Springfield, Mass.
Phillips, whose work has been recognized twice by Editor & Publisher Magazine’s “10 Newspapers That Do It Right,” kicked off the conversation explaining how she has used one-on-one data coaching of editors at The Post and Courier to keep the newsroom focused on audience and digital revenue strategy, and has developed a training culture focused on improving and deepening journalism.
Phillips stressed the importance of team buy-in to new ideas, programs, and ways of innovating that require every staffer to participate, even when it means doing added work or venturing into new beats developing content that resonates best with readers.
Why is that so important?
“Our goal is to keep 83 people in our newsroom,” Phillips said, adding with that sized staff the Post and Courier can handle the day to day demands while still devoting resources to in-depth and investigative reporting, as well as engaging writers and editors in special projects.
About half of those staff members are working primarily or exclusively on digital projects. Phillips said the current goal is to attract 20,000 digital Post and Courier subscribers paying $20 monthly by 2022 (up from an initial offering of $9.95 – and currently at $12.95).
Today The Post and Courier has 8,437 digital subscribers, up from 1,200 just two years ago. Phillips said her paper is running a test now to determine if digital consumers are finding enough value to pay $19.95, or if the digital monthly access should just bump to $15.95.
Her research shows attracting subscribers by discounting or activating a subscription at lower rates only produces greater churn when renewal time comes. “We’re not seeing complaints as we raise our rates,” she said. “If we can get people to pay full price for a year, that’s where we’re seeing success,” she said.
On the editorial side, the Post and Courier management is coaching reporters every day using data to look at what is converting in terms of reader interest, and talking about different digital metrics every day to enhance staff engagement.
She also calls two weekly meetings to review reader behavior with editors, so they are better equipped to coach reporters about building reader loyalty by developing stories that will peak reader engagement time.
In response to reader engagement, the Post and Courier has added two new business reporters, and is asking reporters to seek out “news you can use” subject matter, then encouraging them to write with context, analysis, and authority across all beats.
“That kind of content works for us,” Phillips said. “Readers want more ‘aha’ moments, and things to talk about.” She also briefly covered how the Post and Courier has “pivoted strongly to newsletters,” and “content-driven events.”
Bringing Strategies To Life
In Connecticut, White is the latest Record Journal executive in a multi-generational line of ownership of their 153-year-old newspaper. She said a few years ago her company committed to a strategic plan labeled “80/20 by 2020” — and she spent most of her time talking about how that plan has become an initiative “the whole company can rally around,” while building “a culture around …the most important strategic goals.”
Part of that included relocating the Record Journal newsroom to a new open floor plan workspace. “That really transformed our culture,” White said, which hastened staffers’ collective buy-in and contributed to a collaborative atmosphere.
On the subject of embracing change, White encouraged newspaper leaders and decision makers to “succeed or fail fast” mindset, and when something is working, “stop and celebrate them – people need to be excited about the things they accomplish.”
Today, White sees her company deriving 20 percent of its revenue from non-traditional sources, and finding new ways to do things through “four pillars of transformation.”
She said the first of those pillars involved developing a consumer revenue team tasked with “figuring out strategy,” that has already boosted the Record Journal’s digital subscribers from 287 in 2017, to just under 800 today – with a goal to top 1,800 by year’s end.
White’s editors and managers are similarly coaching reporters and editorial staff to constantly use analytics to build digital engagement and earn subscribers by simply asking what people want and then delivering that content.
The Record Journal’s efforts were supported and energized through its participation in Poynter’s Table Stakes program, which helps local newspapers learn how to make a successful transition to sustainable digital publishing while building a culture of performance-driven change.
“One of the Poynter suggestions was going public, and getting your entire organization to understand why” strategic changes are happening, she said. “So we’re audience focused instead of being focused on the kind of content we think people want,” she added.
White’s team is also moving from paid views to engagement – a huge shift.
“Our page views have gone way down, but the number of users has not,” she said, “that means they’re more engaged and more willing to pay [for content].”
The second pillar “owned and operated revenue,” involves revenue built around content. That means packaging and bundling advertising positioned around content, no matter which platform.
She talked about a “player of the week” sports initiative that also includes weekly video content and an annual event – that White said attracted several over the past year paying $2,500 per month. Several other sponsored packages are poised to run focusing on real estate, food and drink, and healthy living.
White said the Record Journal’s third pillar is Home Based Digital Revenue – promoting the Record Journal’s “local team with national expertise,” and promoting how White’s publications and multimedia content are local, family-owned, and innovative.
The final pillar is “Event Revenue.” White said her team is selective about the kinds of events to do, and that the sports event tied to the aforementioned athlete of the week program.
“That event draws about 400 people,” she said. The paper turned a 35-year-old “design an ad” promotion for local elementary students into an event that draws students, educators, community leaders, and parents “who are excited to be engaging with us.”
White said the company also hosts a four-Chamber event with 300-plus local business people into the Record Journal’s innovative office space so they can see for themselves that we are not a dying newspaper.
Finally, the paper’s “Readers Choice” promotion developed into a print special section that generated $25,000, and morphed into an event that White said generated $235,000 in revenue this year.
‘Money to be made’
Arwady batted clean-up, in part, updating the audience on a number of success stories working for his paper and subsidiary MassLive.com that he showcased in a session at NENPA’s 2019 New England Newspaper Conference in Worcester last October.
Arwady reassured confidently that “there’s a ton of money to be made in print,” whether printing one’s own publications, or printing for other clients. On the digital side, he said his company has seen its MassLive.com page views escalate to an eye-popping 274,332 the day before the conference by keeping content and access free to users.
“That’s why the audience has grown immensely,” Arwady said. As a result, “advertising revenue is millions and millions of dollars.”
Arwady believes he is experiencing the most exciting time in the newspaper business, but admits, “if we don’t innovate, we’re out of business folks.” That means embracing the concept that local newspapers of any size are likely the dominant news medium, information and communications media in your market.
“If you know your market, if you make friends, and if you build relationships and offer innovative products to meet people’s needs, you’re going to be around for years and years and years,” he said.
Referring to the NENPA conference keynote, Arwady said his company always has a “shiny new toy.” He said charging more for the Republican has chased away peripheral readers, and engaged those who read this paper intensely.
Among the other innovative risks Arwady thinks will pay off big is acquiring a partner providing a POP Network or “point of purchase” array of 63 video screens in the region providing a silent, 7-minute loop of news content and advertisements, with each news video or advertisement lasting 15 seconds.
“These are smart digital screens that are optical readers that look out at you, and it knows your gender and age,” he said. “We’re going after TV budgets.” Arwady said the POP Network is geo-targeted, “and we just went over 1.1 billion impressions.”
“Last year we went over $60,000 in revenue and this year, the budget is $390,000,” he added. The Republican is also still making money from obituaries and related products which have generated a 30-40% increase in revenue in recent years.
“You need to brainstorm everything to make money,” he said. Arwady’s company does a revenue retreat every year, the latest producing about 35 new ideas that they choose from to promote or pilot each year.
One of the latest event ideas is a cannabis expo fair to draw both purveyors and consumers engaged in Massachusetts’ legal recreational adult market. Adding he expects to see several hundred vendors signing on from across North America.
The Republican also publishes books, targeting myriad community landmarks, activities, personalities, milestones, and anniversaries. “We do about a quarter million dollars a year in book publishing,” he said. “If there’s an anniversary in your town, and it’s a big enough deal, and you’re not making money off it, shame on you!”
Arwady said his company is far from abandoning print. “If you do it right, print is still wildly profitable, but you have to be creative, nimble – take risks, and give [innovative ideas] time enough to work.”
John Voket is an Associate Editor at The Newtown Bee in Connecticut, Director of Public Affairs for Connecticut’s Connoisseur Media radio stations, and 2018-19 President of NENPA.