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Lessons from the digital subscriptions sprint cohort for Table Stakes alumni

A screenshot of the digital subscription cohort for alumni of the Table Stakes Local News Transformation Program.

In the digital subscription cohort for alumni of the Table Stakes Local News Transformation Program, five teams were challenged to think creatively about growing and retaining digital audiences through experimentation. In this Better News piece, each team shares the challenge it took on over the four months and highlights its biggest lessons.

The five teams are The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C.; The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire; the Star Tribune in Minneapolis; the Detroit Free Press; and a joint team from the Salem Statesman Journal and Eugene Register-Guard in Oregon.

Table Stakes coaches Anthony Basilio, Pat Richardson and Carlos Virgen guided the teams. Nation Hahn was the senior coach. The American Press Institute’s Table Stakes work is funded by The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund.

The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C.

Challenge: The Post and Courier has been expanding statewide through strategic additions of newsrooms across South Carolina. We focused our challenge on the growth of our audience in Greenville, S.C. We hoped to raise our profile in this new market and experiment with ways to attract and retain subscribers with our digital-only product.

Question: What did you learn about creating new content verticals that target a hyperlocal audience?

Answer: We believed the best way to attract new readers was to diversify the topics of our coverage. We experimented with stories about food and dining, and the outdoors. Food coverage was successful, as it has been in all our other markets. We recruited a full-time food writer. The beat is personality-based and success depends on hiring the right person. 

Q: What do you wish you’d known before you started?

A: The delivery methods mattered as much as the content itself. We made two key moves. 1. We increased the frequency of our weekly editor’s newsletter to daily and changed the name to “Today in Greenville.” 2. We added a weekly e-paper. After seeing the success of adding an e-paper to a digital market, we plan to expand the frequency and add e-papers to our other digital-only newsrooms. 

Team:  Autumn Phillips, executive editor; Ryan Gilchrest, managing editor of Greenville/Spartanburg; Andy Shain, managing editor of expansion markets; Nicholas Stuckey, call center manager; Mary Fox, subscriber and donor engagement specialist; Laura James, director of product; Taylor Ysteboe, digital editor; and Sam Hunter, senior newsletter editor (now at MediaNews Group).

The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire

Challenge: We don’t know enough about our subscribers’ journeys, from the news they consume, to what engages them online, to their demographics. We wanted to learn more by discovering how they interact with our app, our newsletter and the types of offers that prompt the highest rate of signups. We identified three sprints:

  • We wanted to increase the activity on our app as measured by downloads, app sessions and app users, driven by an increase in the number of push notifications.
  • We wanted to increase the number of 4- and 5-star Weekday newsletter subscribers, from 64% to 68%, driven by changes in the subject line and preview text. 
  • We wanted to test three subscription offers:
    • $9 for four weeks plus a gift (winner!)
    • $99 for annual subscription, no gift
    • $1 per week for 24 weeks, no gift

Q: How did you test the effectiveness of push notifications, and what did you learn?

A: We didn’t do enough “pushes” to generate the results we wanted, in part because our vendor’s platform only worked well on desktop, not mobile. From May to November, we did only 60 notifications. In the months in which we did at least 10, we saw growth in app sessions, so we know these work. 

For instance, in May, we did 20 notifications, resulting in 7,225 sessions; in July, we did 10 that drove 7,698 sessions, and in October, we did 11, resulting in our highest monthly app sessions — 8,422. In June, we did only seven, and the sessions were just 7,063, and in September, we did only two, and the sessions were 7,413. We will soon launch a new app, which fixes the push notification problem for us and should result in significant growth in mobile use. 

Q: What do you wish you’d known before you started?

A: We wish we had a better understanding of the limitations of our app. To make any progress, we encountered challenges that derailed our efforts. We wish we had more buy-in from the newsroom on using push notifications. We’ve not yet baked these into our operation to our satisfaction, and we are missing readership opportunities as a result. The new app, hopefully, will change this.

Team: Terry Williams, president and COO; Cecily Weisburgh, executive editor – digital; Kelvin Parker, operations director; Jack Rooney, managing editor for audience development; and Jessica Garcia, director for digital and design (now at Yankee Publishing)

Star Tribune in Minneapolis

Challenge: Our challenge was to funnel occasional users into habitual, valuable and paying loyalists. To do that, we need to increase the number of users who come to us regularly (outside of significant news events) by driving non-subscribers to our digital properties, which will promote habituation and drive traffic, which in turn will increase meter interrupts, which will grow our number of active, engaged subscribers. The product we focused this challenge on was email newsletters.

Q: How did your team structure your experiment so that you were able to learn quickly and pivot to the next phase of experimentation? 


  • We brainstormed tactics we thought would increase engagement and prioritized the items we could take action on quickly, while setting up structure to test some of the harder tactics on the list. 
  • We focused on making one small change at a time to a single newsletter (instead of all of them), measuring the impact and then adjusting. That allowed us to run more than one test at a time on different newsletters, and then implement positive outcomes across our entire product line.
  • The initial tests we tried with email newsletters did not increase engagement. With these quick results, we updated our strategy and implemented new tests that led to measurable impact in the longer term. One of the experiments, which involved removing select copy from one of our email newsletters, resulted in an 11% increase in clicks. 

Q: What do you wish you’d known before you started?

A: Six months after the end of the sprint, we wish we’d known that we were setting up a long-term iterative process with a cross-functional team. When we were in the sprint, we were focused on the immediate 12 weeks, and were disheartened that the lift was harder than we thought and we weren’t seeing a big impact in those 12 weeks. What we have since found is that the 12-week sprint set our team up for measurable impact over the next six months, and this momentum continues within our organization today. The scope of this team has been expanded based on its success to include push notifications. 

Team: Harpreet Sandhawalia, director of digital product; Chase Davis, deputy managing editor; Toby Collodora, senior manager, customer engagement and retention; Nick Graf, manager, email subs and promos; Nancy Yang, senior digital editor; and Katie Marfori, digital product owner and reader experience

Detroit Free Press

Challenge: To understand how we might positively affect retention from inside the newsroom, we studied a cohort of new subscribers who signed up to read MLB coverage of the Detroit Tigers during spring training 2022. By focusing on one group of subscribers, we could better envision their journey through the subscription funnel and come up with tactics to strengthen that journey to loyalty.  

Q: How did your team humanize the data you collected on Tigers subscribers to better understand the interests of that audience?

A: Each subscriber has an ID number in our system, but in the newsroom we don’t see personally identifiable information. To humanize the data, we pulled the roster of all-time Detroit Tigers, randomized them and assigned each ID a player’s name. That helped us to talk about a particular subscriber’s on-site habits. For example, we could say that “Jack Billingham” comes back often, reads sports and politics, uses mobile web and doesn’t subscribe to our Tigers newsletter. (The real Jack Billingham pitched for the Tigers in the 1970s.) Giving them names helped us to see that Tigers readers are people, too, and they read much more than just sports.

Q: What do you wish you’d known before you started?

A: How long it would take, from a resource and capability perspective, to isolate the cohort, create the dashboard and work out the kinks so it could pull the data we needed. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but what we thought would take weeks ended up taking a few months. 

Team: Khalil AlHajal, entertainment editor; Lily Altavena, educational equity reporter; Tyler Davis, assistant sports editor (now at the Dallas Morning News); Anjanette Delgado, executive editor; Brian Manzullo, social, search and audience editor; and Chanel Stitt, business reporter

Salem Statesman Journal and Eugene Register-Guard in Oregon

Challenge: We wanted to move from thinking about story metrics after the story is published and just having transactional reader interactions to developing seasonal sport coverage plans that grow digital subs and build reader loyalty, in part from sports reporters having a strong collaborative relationship with the community.

Q: How was your small team able to manage and share responsibilities with the sprint format being fast-paced? 

A: The small size of our team was actually an asset to this challenge. It was all hands on deck and everyone participated. The challenge was with the loss of a key sports reporter in the middle of the project, and a couple of different changes to the editor who oversaw sports coverage. For an already small team, that meant less staff and less time for brainstorming and working on the project and ideas. On a positive note, it forced a couple of more experienced reporters who have been reluctant to change to get on board. We didn’t have the luxury of continuing to do the things that don’t work, resulting in a pretty radical change in what we do and don’t do. 

Q: What do you wish you’d known before you started?

A: I (Alia Rau) wish we’d kept more focus from the beginning. We had several pieces to our effort and we wasted a lot of time trying to figure out how to measure each one instead of focusing on one effort and trying different things we could connect to one type of measurement. That works in the traditional timeline, but made things harder than they needed to be in the sprint.  

I also wish everyone on the team had a stronger understanding of the Table Stakes process. I was the only one that had gone through Table Stakes, so our coach and I spent a lot of time trying to explain the concepts more in real time, and some of the team struggled with some of them. By the end, though, they were converts!  

Team: Michelle Maxwell, editor of The Register-Guard (now on hiatus); Edith Noriega, sports reporter at the Statesman Journal; Alia Rau, senior news editor; and Antwan Staley, sports reporter at The Register-Guard (now at New York Daily News)