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How The Journal News reinvented its coverage of Yonkers, N.Y., rebuilt trust and grew subscriptions

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Refocus your community coverage to build trust and cultivate new, diverse audiences — growing subscriptions along the way.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Tiffany Cusaac-Smith, Yonkers reporter; Jeanne Muchnick, food & dining reporter; and Mary Dolan, executive editor, all of The Journal News and lohud.com in the lower Hudson Valley of New York. The team participated in the Gannett-McClatchy Table Stakes program in 2019-20.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: The lower Hudson Valley is diverse and growing more so, although on a granular level our communities remain largely segregated. Before we were consolidated under The Journal News back in 1998, we published under multiple mastheads. For example, our cities, including Yonkers, each had their own dailies.

Once we became The Journal News, we aimed our coverage at largely white communities desirable to advertisers, which pulled focus and resources from issues of importance to our urban communities of color. As the advent of digital media further upended our industry, our newsroom focused on maximizing page views.

Now, we are transitioning to a subscriber-based revenue model, and we’ve evolved our newsroom culture to one that reports more holistically about the people and communities in the region we serve — with a particular sensitivity to people and communities most affected by our country’s legacy of discrimination.

We wanted to reinvent our coverage of Yonkers, N.Y., moving away from a focus on crime and corruption that provoked distrust and tension, toward more people-focused reporting in neighborhoods rich and poor that could build trust and draw loyal readers and new subscribers.

We now focus hard on where we can grow our readership. In the lower Hudson Valley, that target is people who live in diverse, multicultural communities growing in population. We can’t get there without listening to their needs, gaining their trust and reflecting the fullness of their lives.

A secondary, smaller target are millennials priced out of New York City — or driven out by the pandemic — and moving to Yonkers, a city grappling like many with how to balance growth and development against the needs of longtime residents.

Our goal was to create and test a template of strategies in Yonkers that could serve these audiences that we could also apply to similar communities.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

 A: This approach is related to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content”), Table Stake No. 4 (“Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying loyalists”), Table Stake No. 6 (“Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities”) and Table Stake No. 7 (“Drive audience growth and profitability from a ‘mini-publisher’ perspective”).

To be more specific, here’s how we used each Table Stake:

  • Serve targeted audiences with targeted content: We targeted our potential Yonkers audience with targeted content by listening in order to understand the needs of Yonkers residents and creating content to reflect those needs.
  • Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying/valuable loyalists: We funneled habitual users to paying customers through newsletters, events and other targeted initiatives to deepen engagement in the community.
  • Partner to expand capacity and to develop diverse and local reporting talent. We demonstrated that we could grow the audience in Yonkers without adding staff by making this a newsroom-wide goal, focusing on content that resonates with the audience we seek to grow and collaborating with partners outside our organization.
  • Drive audience growth and profitability from a “mini-publisher” perspective: We drove growth and profitability by developing cross-functional “mini-publisher” teams comprising editorial, content marketing and consumer sales, all of whom led with a strong sense of ownership and belief in the project.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

The Journal News partnered with the Yonkers Film Festival, wrote multiple stories based on community feedback and the photographers gifted the mayor with poster boards (above) of the Yonkers community.

A:  Coverage of Yonkers is a newsroom-wide project. Our journalists were eager to dig in and do right by a community many of us felt we had long ignored. We started in summer 2019 by introducing our new Yonkers reporter, Tiffany Cusaac-Smith. Our visuals staff spent June through August in Yonkers photographing 92 residents for a “Today in Yonkers” gallery.

 We then created poster boards of the photographs and presented them to the mayor, who displayed them in City Hall in September 2019. The photographers surveyed their subjects about reporting they’d like us to do. We also did another story to introduce Cusaac-Smith and promote our online survey seeking coverage suggestions.

Based on community feedback, we followed up with several stories:

In November of 2019, we set up working groups of reporters to brainstorm ideas around the concerns of the residents on these key topics:

  • Watchdog/investigations
  • Features/culture/people/family life
  • Education/”cradle-to-career”
  • Neighborhood issues
  • Development/transportation

As a result, based on residents’ concerns, our coverage of Yonkers included several key stories:

 In addition to our coverage, we hosted events to increase our profile. Based on our readers’ interest in photographing restaurant meals for social media, we invited residents to a restaurant to learn techniques from our photographers. Food writer Jeanne Muchnick partnered with a Yonkers historian who is also an LGBTQ activist for a tour of the activist’s favorite restaurants.

Twenty participants were guided in the art of food photography by the photo staff at The Journal News and lohud.com with wonderful preparations of Japanese dishes by the restaurant staff. Tania Savayan/The Journal News

We partnered with the Yonkers Film Festival, providing our reporters as moderators for filmmaker discussions and our visuals staff to create a gallery of the opening celebration.

As we gained momentum, we wanted to demonstrate whether people in Yonkers would pay to read our top enterprise and investigative reporting. We put 28 stories behind the paywall and monitored how they performed.

Throughout the project, the editorial leads met with consumer sales, marketing and brand representatives to coordinate and support the Yonkers effort.

Our partners in marketing and consumer sales targeted these stories as Yonkers “zombies” and low-use subscribers. (We define a “zombie” as a subscriber who has not signed in to their online account in the last 90 days.) We also used paid Facebook boosts aimed at residents in select ZIP codes to serve them these Yonkers stories and also to push them to subscribe to the Yonkers newsletter.

Our percentage of low-use subscribers declined from 33% to 22%, while our percentage of highly engaged subscribers grew from 32% to 38%

 We re-engaged with nearly 1,000 full-access Yonkers subscribers each month in the first quarter of 2020 through content marketing on social media. In total, that campaign drove 4,123 clicks to Yonkers specific content and at least five subscription purchases.

 Q: What worked?

A: From the spring of 2019 to early 2020:

  • Digital subscriptions grew by 50% in the five Yonkers ZIP codes, from 2,000 to 3,000 by year’s end.
  • Twenty-eight Yonkers premium stories acquired 268 total subscribers.
  • Yonkers premium content achieved an average of 906 page views and 9.6 new subscribers, outperforming the site median at the time of 800 page views and 5 new subscribers.
  • Yonkers stories that were metered performed above the site median (5,000 page views) in terms of audience.
  • The Yonkers newsletter acquired 5,000 subscribers, with a 32.34% open rate and 9.12% click-through rate. We re-targeted newsletter subscribers to convert into paid subscribers, netting 49 subscription purchases.
  • The Yonkers Facebook group added 700 members.

Q: What didn’t work?

 A: In-person events and activities were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We pivoted to virtual where we could, but these did not provide the same opportunity to develop meaningful relationships. We also had to hit pause on a goal to partner with the Yonkers school system and an educational nonprofit that we had planned to work with to develop and mentor a pipeline of young journalists of color. We intend to resume this after the pandemic.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

 A: Of course, we didn’t anticipate the dual crises of COVID and the racial reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd. Yonkers was hit hard and early by the pandemic. We dropped our paywall to make our public health reporting free, which blew a hole in our premium test.

Our groundwork established that we were in Yonkers for the long game and not just parachuting in and out, which helped us connect with people and sources as we reported stories on COVID and racial reckoning. Our access resulted in several in-depth stories, including:

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

 A: Here’s what we learned:

  • We demonstrated that readers found our content to be relevant to their lives and that they were willing to pay to read Yonkers stories put behind the paywall.
  • We created a template of successful strategies to apply to other communities with high-audience-growth potential.
  • We created an audience habit to keep consuming and engaging with us, which will lead to more subscribers.

Here’s what we’d do differently:

  • We’d create a champion to secure funding and also to apply for Report for America reporters and any other resources available to newsrooms at the start.
  • Our challenge is how to continue to produce the journalism that will retain the audiences we’ve grown, to build a bigger audience in Yonkers, and to scale this success in other communities. We know we need interns, grants, fellowships and other creative sources of funding.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

 A: Recognize that building trust takes time and that your successes will be incremental and hard-won.

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

 A: It was critical to involve the whole newsroom. With fewer resources, our staff has to be more nimble. Having all of the reporters involved helped us move from a beat mentality to a focus on audience growth.

Related: Read how the News Journal in Delaware reinvented the watchdog newsroom and grew subscriptions