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The 10 most popular Better News case studies of 2023

Bill Gibbs, center, poses alongside his neighbors outside of the community center in Uniontown, Ala., on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. Gibbs is among the residents who worry about the impact the massive Arrowhead Landfill is having on their community. (Jake Crandall/ Advertiser)

Here are 10 ideas to steal and adapt: From developing audience personas to building trust, these original case studies are the most-viewed in 2023 on BetterNews.org.

In 2023, Better News featured lessons and successes from local news organizations building trust in marginalized communities, partnering with local organizations and diversifying revenue streams. These case studies, written by alumni of the Table Stakes Local News Transformation Program, are helping accelerate the work of journalists and news organizations across the industry. The case studies featured on this list are our top 10 most-viewed stories in 2023.

In a special year-end episode, Better News podcast host Michael O’Connell talked to Kamaria Roberts, the deputy director of local news transformation at the American Press Institute, about her 2023 highlights. Listen to the podcast here.

1. How the Detroit Free Press is using personas to better gauge readers’ interests

To strengthen users’ journey to loyalty, the Detroit Free Press realized it needed to focus on a specific group of subscribers. The team started by isolating a cohort of more than 600 subscribers who read Detroit Tigers MLB coverage, before or after buying a subscription. What they learned was that this cohort of subscribers was also interested in breaking news and political coverage, which was something they’d assumed wasn’t true. By finding a distinctive way to label users and create a dashboard to easily track data, the Free Press was able to increase page views per session for these Tigers subscribers.

2. Turn newsletter subscribers into donors, like WJCT Public Media did

Jacksonville Today, WJCT Public Media’s weekday newsletter, needed financial viability after its first year of publication. The team decided to experiment with a digital fundraising campaign, which they’d never done before. Using personalized messages from reporters, they asked their most loyal subscribers to donate, with their donations being matched in November and December. More than 500 readers, about 5% of the subscriber list, donated to the campaign.

3. How a reader-oriented ask-the-newsroom effort brought digital subscribers to the Redding Record Searchlight

The Redding Record Searchlight had a trust issue with its conservative audience. The newspaper also wanted to accelerate digital subscription growth by encouraging reader participation. “Ask the Record Searchlight” invites readers to help shape coverage by submitting questions that the Record Searchlight could answer. Consistency and growing awareness helped gain new subscribers through the initiative and improve the Record Searchlight’s relationship with existing subscribers.

4. Lessons from the digital subscriptions sprint cohort for Table Stakes alumni

Five teams participated in the digital subscription cohort for Table Stakes alumni, which challenged them to experiment with new ways of growing and retaining digital audiences. In the piece, each team shared their challenge and lessons from their experience in the cohort. 

5. How the Montgomery Advertiser is building trust and growing audiences in Alabama’s rural communities

The Montgomery Advertiser knew its racist history deemed it untrustworthy to some in the community. They set out to fix it by growing trust in underserved communities and reimagining their coverage to be more enterprise-focused. Communicating directly with rural audiences, in-person and digitally, helped the Advertiser gain an understanding of what this community needed and how they could work together. The newsroom used beat mapping to ensure their work was reaching the readers who were most hungry for it. Their work gained them new subscribers and key relationships with community stakeholders.

6. How the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel focused on prioritizing with a “Stop Doing” list

First published in 2018, the advice from this piece still resonates with news organizations today and continues to be one of the most-read pieces on Better News. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel needed to address the capacity issues that hold so many organizations back. To get started, a team created a list of newsroom activities that didn’t contribute to its audience-centric strategy. Having a list was key — it helped them remember their commitment, track progress and celebrate wins. Reviewing the list consistently was a must, too.

7. How a university partnership helps The Coloradoan build opinion content and audience engagement

With staff reductions reducing The Coloradoan’s newsroom down to only 16 people, they were forced to stop doing some things. Their traditional opinion coverage wasn’t a high driver of digital readership but it did provide an important forum for community conversations. They decided to reimagine the opinion section to be a weekly curated discussion of a question related to recent local news, an initiative that they call Coloradoan Conversations. The effort has been proven successful in several ways. The newsroom has partnered with other local organizations; pageviews, engagement time and subscriptions are up; and the community is benefiting from the coverage. 

8. Managing change in news organizations starts with leading people well

Three Detroit business leaders shared key leadership principles for managing change during a panel discussion for news leaders. Their advice:

  • Lead from all sides of the room, not just from the most protected side.
  • Let people know where they stand and where you stand as the one in charge.
  • Embrace difficult conversations as the fair and deserved interactions that they are.

9. 3 tips for building trust with rural communities

During a live-streamed panel discussion, three journalists who serve rural audiences offered suggestions on building trust in these communities. Here’s what they said:

  • Recognize that you are part of the media and oftentimes people don’t differentiate among news organizations. Start by making yourself known and letting people know why you’re there.
  • Don’t stereotype the people in these communities by assuming you know more than you do. There are nuanced and complex things for you to learn about each community.
  • Listen to people and take the time to understand their lives. Accountability is high in rural places because people are much more likely to know one another.

10. Nostalgia as a beat? How Newsday is turning look-back coverage into a surprise driver of new subscribers

When Newsday realized that niche content was helping grow online audiences during the height of the pandemic, it began treating nostalgia coverage as a beat. A spike in engagement from a where-are-they-now story about retired New York metro-area TV newscasters caught the eye of an editor, and the team quickly realized that it needed to focus the nostalgia pieces on memorable events specific to Long Island. As of November, entertainment-related nostalgia stories have had up to 40% higher engagement and triple the paths to conversions as the average story.