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Paying For Your Audience (Isn't a Bad Thing)

If you’ve worked in a newspaper newsroom at any point in your career, the following quotes may seem familiar to you:

“We don’t want to be perceived as promoting ourselves.”

“If we ask our readers for money, they won’t trust us.”

I’ll admit, after spending a good amount of time in local TV newsrooms, and then returning to the newspaper world, the distain for self-promotion of any kind at print publications boggled my mind. 

Thankfully, the unwillingness to promote stories or asking people to pay for the journalism they read is fading away along with that wall between the business side of publications and newsrooms.

But that simple idea of self-promotion may not be enough for most publications to stay afloat. That’s where the Journalism Growth Lab comes into play.

The Lab started out as a side hustle for Phillip Smith, but is now, well, an actual thing for Smith and Emily Zajac.

What is it? The Journalism Growth Lab focuses on paid acquisition -- the process of growing audiences and finding new subscribers by using online advertising on platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter and others.

Because I love funnels, I’ll say that it’s a way to get new people into the top of your funnel, or helping move existing folks down the path to a digital subscription or membership. 

“This is something I’ve been watching some publishers do for a very long time,” Smith said. “It’s amazing that more haven’t looked into it.”

Some of that has to do with that innate ability in some journalists to avoid promoting themselves. Some of it is the absence of knowledge about social advertising. But it also has to do with that ever-popular duo of “lack of time” and “lack of resources.”

“Moderately well-staffed newsrooms don’t have the time to take this stuff on,” Smith said. 

So Smith and Zajac offer up their in-depth knowledge and skillset to do it for them.

What levels of publications are the right size to work with the Growth Lab? As Smith describes it, an outlet like the Philadelphia Inquirer would be too big, while a single founder/owner startup is too small. The smallest organizations Smith works with have about six to 12 people in the newsroom, and the largest have about 50.

Smith said he doesn’t advise paid acquisition for startups, telling them to put in the legwork to build their audience organically.

“Most startups have a natural early momentum from friends and family and word of mouth,” Smith said. But after about six to 12 months, they might run out of steam. That’s when they need to think about how they are going to raise awareness and get more folks into the top of the funnel.

Smith has published a lot of research on paid acquisition — two good examples are here and here in case you want to go in depth on the subject (which you should).

But Smith offered up some simple advice for anyone who wants to dip their toes in the paid acquisition space.

No. 1: Do you homework first and understand how much you can pay for a new newsletter subscriber or a new paid subscriber, member or donor.

“So many publishers come to us and say they ran a campaign for two weeks, and got newsletter subscribers for $2 each, and ask if that’s good,” Smith said.

If you have to ask, that means you didn't put in the effort up front to understand what you can afford.

“Do the homework to know how much you can spend and what a good campaign looks like,” he said.

Here's an example from research Smith did with Lenfest in 2019:
For example, if 2% of leads convert into paying members, that would mean two new members for every 100 leads. And if those two new members, on average, resulted in $240 each, say, $10/month for two years, that would result in $480 in revenue. Thus, as long as all the leads were acquired, on average, for less than $4.80/each, the publisher would grow their subscriber or member base and break even on the cash investment (cost of labor is not included in this simplified example). The same would hold true for 1,000 leads and 10,000 leads. 
No. 2: Be straightforward with your ad copy, not misleading.

Smith said he’s heard from publishers who have worked with bigger agencies that brought in lots of newsletter subscribers, but the engagement numbers were terrible. In those cases, the agency may have used misleading campaigns, like a personality quiz or survey where people had to give an email address to find out the answers. That’s … not good.

“Just be straight with people,” Smith said. That means tell people what they can expect from you. Make them curious about your content and then deliver.

No. 3: Habit is key.

Don’t just think about acquiring email subscribers. Also think about the folks who have interacted with your publication in the past, and get them to do it again … and again.

In other words, build brand affinity. 

“Try to bring people back quickly as a way to make them more aware of the brand or the funnel,” Smith said.

If any of this sounds interesting to you and you’d like more information about what Smith and Zajac are doing, you can check out a few case studies on the Growth Lab site.  You also may want to tune in to their podcast via the Journalism Growth Club.

Journalists and Coal Miners Unite

This recent story from Christian Science Monitor about the newspaper industry is a fascinating read, and is worth your time. 

In particular, I really liked this comparison, which hits home for those of us who grew up around coal mines:
Behind this debate is a sobering fact: The newspaper biz has shed jobs at the same rate as the coal industry.

The mining analogy is apt. Local papers, after all, provide the raw ore of information that filters up to regional and national media organizations. Taking them away leaves a news void that is filled by social media that is overwhelmingly driven by national trends.

Biddi Biddi Biddi

We've been to the moon (allegedly), but I still can't get my computer to automatically write my newsletter each week so I can continue to master the artistic stylings of Bob Ross. (What can I say, I found out there is a Bob Ross channel on my Roku, and now I dream about happy little trees...)

But my prayers soon may be answered, thanks to advancements in AI. Read this article on Marketwatch that was completely written by OpenAI’s GPT-3, "a powerful language-prediction model capable of composing sequences of coherent text." 

As the human "author" of the article said, "The only thing I did was provide it with topics to write about. I did not even fix its grammar or spelling."


Meanwhile, Sharif Shameem took things to another level by building some AI to create automatic podcasts. Yes, that's right, he recorded a podcast without even saying a word. Wild, wild stuff.

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords... 

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Quick Hits

Here is a lot of informative news from around the world of local journalism. Enjoy! 

Learn: "In all, only 11% of Americans unreservedly embrace all five of the journalism principles tested and these people tend to be politically liberal. However, most Americans don’t fully endorse these journalism principles, and the distrust goes beyond traditional partisan politics." "Popular creators are essentially community organizers, building a relationship with their viewers in increasingly intimate ways. Acts of vulnerability on-camera may still be performative, but whether creators are sharing their childhood stories or live streaming their day-to-day lives, the consensus is clear: People crave that sense of connection and want more." "Today, we’re announcing Substack Local, a US$1,000,000 initiative to foster and develop the local news ecosystem by helping independent writers build local news publications based on the subscription model." "The balance between growth and retention is key when defining subscription prices. The focus ultimately depends on where you are in your digital journey." "Bhalla added that publishers must evaluate macro and micro trends in their markets and regions, as well as their own brand and organisation. She said that those trends, which include internet penetration, availability of payment gateways, audience capability and willingness to pay for news, and reader awareness of publishers’ brand and value propositions, will influence strategies for growing reader revenue." "On average, the largest ten weekday newspapers in the US experienced a circulation fall of 20% in the six months to September 2020, Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) figures show." "Google said it will prioritize product reviews that feature information gathered through hands-on evaluation of the product, rather than aggregated information about it. The move stands to hurt publishers, especially those that have found success in aggregating product reviews." "In the U.S., GroupM forecasts that the the industry will grow by 15% this year, better than its prior 12% forecast. Wieser predicts that the U.S. 'should end the year with 6% more activity than we saw in the last 'normal' year of 2019.' " "An unexpected gain from COVID-19’s impact on newsrooms across the country has been the accelerated innovation with partnerships, news products, and business models, especially in independent newsrooms." "Here are 19 COVID-19 inspired developments that publishers, researchers and policymakers need to be aware of." "So as we celebrate 150 years, we are announcing the Utah News Collaborative as a way to share more news with more people." "In a world of TikTok and Clubhouse, of free news and fake news, how can publishers engage the under-35s?"

Attend: "A free event produced by The Open Markets Institute’s Center for Journalism & Liberty in cooperation with The Washington Monthly."

This An' 'At: "If you are one of these rescuers, I want to offer some free advice: as you soon as you get control, or even as a condition of doing so if possible, take the newspapers out of print, and go all-digital." "The Chesterton Tribune printed what was believed to be its final edition last year, ending a 136-year run for Northwest Indiana’s longest continuously running newspaper. Then something remarkable happened, at least in the dire world of local papers." "A Midwestern newspaper, struggling to stay afloat in a climate of media mistrust and predatory publishing companies, still fights to expose corruption... Who thinks up these crazy storylines anyway?" "The recent denial of press credentials for an Omaha-based news website to cover briefings by Gov. Pete Ricketts is raising questions about who, and who shouldn’t, be allowed to attend news events in the age of growing digital media." "The 'We Can Do This' campaign was announced by HHS on April 1 as part of the Biden Administration’s quest to encourage vaccinations across America. A $10 billion outreach rollout includes TV advertising and Facebook profiles to reach communities that may be hesitant about the vaccine. But no announcement about including local newspapers as part of the $10 billion campaign was included in the agency’s announcement." "In rural and small-town communities across America, we are seeing the impacts of this consolidation first hand — expanding “news deserts” where local coverage is increasingly difficult to come by. We can’t stand by and watch this happen to our independent press."


That's all for this week. 

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