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Welcome back everyone, and a special shoutout to our new subscribers, including Cheryl, Jed, Anne Marie, Brier, Gabby, Tena, Jane, Diana, Meredith, Erica, Eric, Steve and Mary Kay, among others. We’re glad you’re here! (I assume most of you found out about The Alliance from the mention in Kristen Hare's Poynter newsletter, which is super cool. So thanks for giving us a shot.)

Now, on with the show...

A Rewarding Experience

Churn is real, and it is a subscription-based publication’s worst nightmare.

You can do as much new user acquisition as humanly (or algorithmically) possible, but if you constantly lose as many subscribers as you gain, well, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

One of most cringe-worthy moments in recent subscriber churn history happened in 2019, when the Los Angeles Times announced that it added 52,000 digital subscriptions — which was great! — but ... it also lost 39,000 existing subscribers during that same span.
As Joshua Benton of NiemanLab reminded folks when reporting on that Calichurnication, there are a number of ways to defend against subscriber loss, including:
  • Frequent messaging that reminds readers of the value of their subscription — both the practical value and the values that buttress the case for supporting local media.
  • Building out unique subscriber-only experiences that make them feel they’ve got an inside pass to something important.
  • Not just creating great journalism, but making sure that the great journalism gets seen by the people who’d enjoy or derive value from it.
  • Using customer data to determine what, exactly, an individual reader finds valuable about what you produce and making sure they come into contact with it as often as possible.
The Times, like a lot of newspapers across the country, clearly had some work to do.

Fast-forward to 2021.

At the end of the first quarter of this year, the Dallas Morning News had amassed a total of nearly 51,000 paid digital subscriptions. That’s about 11,500 more than a year earlier. Meanwhile, the company said its print subscriber base has stabilized with just a slight decline in home delivery revenue year-over-year.

At the same time, the average print membership rate has increased 8 percent year-over year ($9.70 per week) and average digital membership rate has increased 21 percent year-over-year ($3.35 per week).

But once again, those numbers won’t mean a thing unless the DMN can hang on to those customers. One of the ways the publication avoids churn is via a rewards program for subscribers.

We’re not talking about a few discounts at local restaurants. We’re talking about an entire monthly calendar of events and experiences for subscribers, both in person and virtual.

Here’s a look at the current calendar for April and May.
DMN loyalty and retention manager Jessica Cates said the rewards program, which started in 2017, is a way to enhance and add value to their subscribers’ investment in local journalism.

The rewards program provides multiple levels of benefits, from chats with newsroom talent and local leaders, to workshops with staff photographers and tickets to sporting events and art exhibits around town.

In 2019 (aka The Before Times), the DMN provided more than 90 different events and experiences for subscribers. In a COVID-dominated 2020, that number actually increased to 125 virtual events.

Those virtual events turned out to be a big hit with certain sections of their audience, especially the older crowd, which may not feel comfortable driving downtown or at night.

Cates does all of the content planning, while a co-worker helps with implementation and another distributes tickets. 

But the newsroom staff also gets involved in a lot of the events, especially the virtual chats.

“A lot of our journalists have dynamic personalities and a following,” Cates said. “The feedback they get is rewarding and they love doing them.”

Cates said the newsroom is now contacting her with new event ideas. 

“Now they’re coming back to me,” she said. “Plus, they’re seeing a return building their brands.”

A lot of the event passes are obtained via barter relationships with sports and art organizations around town. If those organizations are already advertising, the DMN might bump up the size of the deal for tickets in return. The orgs get new people in their doors, they get additional promotion of their events, and the DMN ends up with happy subscribers.

In general, the DMN doesn’t try to add sponsorship to these member events, but it is something under consideration, especially as virtual events mean a potential increase in audience size. Cates said it may be possible to bundle a series of sports-related events, for example, if an advertiser is interested in reaching that audience.

In the end, this is still all about the subscribers and what they are interested in, and what can enhance the value of their subscription so that they will continue to pay the DMN for years to come.

Cates said she is constantly doing subscriber surveys in order to figure out what they want. “If they are not getting it, can I deliver it through an event?”

She said she generally does three subscriber surveys a year, but also probes for feedback in the DMN’s weekly rewards newsletter. She also can pose specific questions to certain demographics or ZIP codes. And, she said, she’s got a list of “ambassadors” — about 25 or so diehard fans who she can tap for anything. And yes, she’s on a first-name basis with all of them.

So what’s next for the DMN rewards program? They are currently testing a member discount offer to join the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. If that works, DMN subscribers may start receiving offers for discounted memberships to other cultural institutions around town.

If this all seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But it’s also work that can have a big impact on a publication’s bottom line. 

Right now a lot of publications are seeing an increase in subscribers because folks have a renewed interest in local journalism, or they finally realize that it may be necessary to pay for quality reporting. 

But remember those membership rate numbers from earlier? The DMN is getting about $3.35 per week from every digital subscriber. That will need to increase over time. How can outlets justify those increases? Rewards for maintaining a subscription might be what it takes.

Oh and ponder this: as more paywalls go up on local content — whether it be newspaper websites, newsletters, SMS services, etc., subscription fatigue is bound to set in and publications are going to have to up the ante. Providing added subscriber benefits like those offered at the DMN may eventually be the industry norm as outlets fight for their slice of the subscription pie.

Take a Survey, Please

NewStart fellow Tony Baranowski has a favor to ask. He created this boffo, socko survey as part of his final project for our master's degree program at WVU, and is looking for rural community newspaper owners and publishers to fill it out. So if you fit that description, please tap on the link below and answer a few questions:
Take The Survey
Tony, who is the Director of Local Media for Times Citizen Communications in North Central Iowa and a board member for the Iowa Newspaper Association, would really appreciate it. If you have any questions about it or want to learn more about what he's up to, you can find him on the Twitters @tonyapb3.

NewStart Update

There is still time to be like Tony and earn a master's degree in Media Solutions and Innovation from WVU's Reed College of Media. Our next cohort will start learning virtually at the end of June, so if you want in, check out the program details here, and then follow the instructions here to apply!

Quick Hits

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

Learn: "IPI is mapping and sharing globally how quality local media outlets are creating sustainable models of trusted journalism and countering misinformation in their communities." (This features some amazing case studies, including WVU's own 100 Days in Appalachia.) "I don’t mean this as an exhaustive list of the types of sustainable media companies. There are a lot of ways to make the business work. But these are areas I think we’ll see the most growth." "Report for America today announced the placements of some 300 journalists for its 2021 reporting corps. The cohort, which includes a number of corps members returning for a second or third year, will join the staffs of more than 200 local news organizations across 49 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam." "We’re committing $5 million to support local journalists interested in starting or continuing their work on our new platform for independent writers." "Today, The Chronicle is launching its first non-fungible token, or NFT, an animated card representing our popular Best Bay Area Views Guide. The buyer gets the NFT and the power to remove the paywall on the page, making the guide to some of the region’s top outdoor spots free for everyone, forever. If the bidding surpasses the reserve price for the token, all additional proceeds will go to The Chronicle’s flagship charity, Season of Sharing." "In an increasing trend, publishers clearly see innovation as being vital for the success of their organisations. Over the past years there has been a growing number of digital innovation projects and initiatives." "The lifespan of a subscriber is dictated almost entirely by how they perceive value in a service. Subscribers will simply cancel and churn if their expectations are not met. Thankfully, there are many approaches to take. These include building a diverse product portfolio, informed product pricing, and promoting engagement to encourage loyalty. Here are six approaches to consider as you work to satisfy subscribers and grow revenue." "While everyone I spoke to for this article assured me that 6AM City wasn’t replacing the local newspaper, it was hard to ignore the level of community engagement that these newsletters spurred — the kind of engagement that legacy newspapers need to attract if they are to survive." “I think that you know there’s a really cool moment happening right now to readmit reimagining like journalism and bringing in residents and everyday people into the fold and learning how to report on public government, and I think that’s what the Documenters program is all about,” he says. Journalists and journalism institutions are rethinking how they center the needs and desires of communities of color.  But there is still a long history of disinvestment and harm that newsrooms must address to repair their relationships with Latino/a/x, Black and Indigenous communities. "Up until last year, newsletters were 'thought of as an engagement tool' for Flipboard, Zalk said, to stay connected with Flipboard users and drive them to the app. They’ve so far been more of a brand marketing tactic than a revenue driver: ads from the company’s newsletters currently contribute less than 2% of the company’s overall revenue. By the end of this year, Zalk hopes to triple that percentage." "We know that puzzles are important for habit formation, but how to transfer their success to the digital world is an area yet to be fully explored. In our latest customer session, we took a deep dive into the role of puzzles. In doing this, we shared some best practices from around our community. Today we bring some examples of puzzle strategies for onboarding, retention and acquisition to inspire you." "Gannett’s flagship national paper quietly started to put some of its premium stories behind a paywall. A subscription costs $4.99 a month." "Mediapart succeeded gradually, and then spectacularly. In 2020, its model of independent journalism financed by digital subscriptions without advertising has triumphed."

Steal These Ideas: "In recent months, BoiseDev embarked on a research project and found something simple: Idahoans want to know what’s happening around them, but don’t feel well-served by social media. Introducing Idaho First by BoiseDev. It’s a quick, free, first-of-the-day digest of local information delivered by email – and only local information. Our managing editor Gretchen Parsons will give you a pulse for the day. The news you need to know, the stories you’ll want to hear about and the events you’ll look forward to attending (plus, we’ll tell you in five words or less what the weather will be)." "This May, Democrats and Republicans will head to the polls to consider judicial candidates — including one for the state Supreme Court — while all Pennsylvania voters (that includes you, independents and minority-party members!) will be asked to consider four ballot questions. Join Spotlight PA and our expert panelists for a free reader Q&A about what you need to know before you vote."

This An' 'At: “Saying ‘national media sucks,’ is a lot easier than looking a local journalist you know in the eye to say that,” John Isner, co-host of the popular West Virginia-based Appodlachia podcast told me. Without local journalism, he added, the divide between urban and rural America is widening. “To be brutally honest, we were stuck in the print model, of a slower take on the news, and we couldn’t adapt,” says Pat Robinson. He added they hope to continue some news content online, or as an email newsletter. "Because of my leadership role, I often had a seat at the decision-making table. But my recommendations were almost always met with polite acknowledgements that never turned into action. When I gave notice, I was surprised how many people urgently sought memos, training recordings, wikis, and strategy sessions on audience principles. I have never felt more heard in the newsroom than I did in those weeks. I gave them as much as I could in my notice period but it was hard to not say, 'Where was all this energy two years ago?'”


That's all for this week. 

You can follow NewStart on Twitter @wvunewstart, and you can @ me @jimiovino. You can follow us on the Facebooks here.

Interested in supporting our students in Year 2 and beyond? I'd be happy to talk! Wouldn't it be great to offer more fellowships and scholarships? You can help!

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