A resource for news innovators powered by American Press Institute
Complexity: Intermediate
Article Complexity Bar Graph

How NorthJersey.com used subscriber-exclusive stories to drive digital subscriptions

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Prioritize digital subscribers over page views, and provide subscriber-only stories on topics that are vital and unique to your community.

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 Candace Mitchell, director of subscription strategy, and Elyse Toribio, audience and community engagement specialist, both at NorthJersey.com and The Record, which took part in the Gannett-McClatchy 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 Record, which is owned by Gannett, has been serving northern New Jersey readers for decades under the slogan “Friend of the People It Serves.” The paper recently celebrated its 125th birthday. We primarily cover Bergen County (the most populous county in New Jersey) and Passaic County. Our communities are some of the most diverse in the nation, sitting just across the river from New York City.

Our newsroom needed to understand what drives readers to subscribe and focus on those areas to develop a subscription strategy that would bring in new and continued revenue.

When we started the Table Stakes program, NorthJersey.com had a paywall for about only two years, and we did not have any content on our site that was available only to subscribers. Our site’s meter at the time was seven free articles per month. And we did not have access to all the subscriber data we needed to make informed decisions. Essentially, we were guessing too much and didn’t have the resources to check ourselves.

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 idea is tied closely to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content”).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We took several critical steps.

 We changed the way we talk about stories.

Our newsroom leaders had to make sure everyone had a true understanding of our subscription goals and how we would achieve them. Our goal was to double our digital subscribers in one year. That meant long discussions with our newsroom about why subscriptions were our primary focus and how we would measure success.

One of the first things we did was change the analytics that our digital leaders shared with the newsroom daily to send the message that our priorities have shifted. To do that, we sent the newsroom a survey asking them what story analytics would help them.

 Our old analytics note led with the total number of page views for the day, followed by a list of the top stories ranked by page views. Now, our note leads with the number of new digital subscribers added that day. We include a list of stories ranked by the number of subscriber page views they received and the number of times they were viewed on a visit where a reader bought a digital subscription.

We also asked what terms were the clearest when talking about things like the audience funnel (moving occasional users to habitual, paying loyalists) or subscriber-exclusive stories (stories that are only available to readers who pay for a  subscription) to make sure we were all speaking the same language.

This change in language changed our news meetings and conversations with reporters. Our focus shifted from stories that would get the most page views to stories that drove subscriptions and subscriber page views.

We experimented and identified top topics for our subscribers.

NorthJersey.com was just beginning to experiment with a hybrid model — a combination of having a meter (limiting the number of stories a non-subscriber could read a month) and stories that were exclusively for our subscribers.

Editors and reporters had an idea of what content areas especially resonated with our audience: health care, environment, watchdog, dining, redevelopment, state politics. But we needed to test these topics as subscriber-only stories to get supportive data. We wanted to create a process for deciding what should and should not be marked subscriber-only. We wanted everyone in the newsroom to feel comfortable with that process.

After reviewing six months of data, the digital leaders identified three consistently overperforming story topics: high school sports, redevelopment and holding public officials accountable. We shared our findings with the newsroom.

Over the course of three presentations, we went through each topic, sharing examples of successful stories within those topics. The reporters who wrote those stories explained how they got them, and we talked about how reporters can pursue those topics on their beats.

We also created a process for how we decide whether or not a story should be marked as subscriber-only for stories on topics we were unsure about. Here’s our flow chart:

NorthJersey.com and The Record created a flow chart that editors and reporters could use to identify whether content should be labeled subscriber-only. Photo by Amalie Nash

We took it a step further with community partnerships.

 We only had a paywall for about two years and needed to grow fast. Forty or 50 new subscribers a day were just not going to cut it.

We also needed to prove that we were essential to the community. It was important to demonstrate that gaining subscribers would be beneficial both to the survival of our news organization and the community that wants to stay informed.

So we developed a strategy to build relationships with school districts: One district bought a group subscription for their faculty and students in grades K-12. We formed a partnership that included benefits like offering a newsroom mentor for their school newspaper, reporters who could visit classrooms to talk about topics they were experts in and, of course, (post-pandemic) student field trips to our newsroom.

To be more specific: Group subscriptions are sold in bulk at a discounted rate determined by our sales team. Once an agreement is reached, we share a quote from the sales team and the two parties talk finances from there. Then, our marketing team creates a landing page for their organization. Group members use their organization’s email address to sign in via the landing page to create a login for themselves.

 Newsroom leaders also made it clear to our journalists that these group subscription sales did not mean we’d cover any group, town or organization any differently. It simply meant we’d be gaining more loyal, paying readers at a quicker pace and, in some cases, spending more time in the communities we serve.

We designed this model so that it could be expanded to other groups that we know read our coverage, and we’ve recently approached local governments to purchase group subscriptions.

Q: What worked?

 A: The focus on unique, local journalism to drive subscriptions worked. The stories our readers were willing to pay for were more than just our biggest enterprise pieces. They were the “daily” stories our reporters wrote regularly. We began locking down nearly 20% of our stories exclusively for subscribers.

It worked: NorthJersey.com was the fastest growing site in Gannett for digital subscriptions in 2019, growing 118% year over year. We fell short of our goal to double our digital subscription in a year by about 1,800, but digital subscriptions have grown 145% in the year and a half since we began the Table Stakes program.

Stories that have performed best for NorthJersey.com as subscriber-only include:

  • Our investigative work
  • Stories out of our local towns on redevelopment, changing downtowns
  • High school sports coverage
  • Dining, specifically restaurant roundups
  • Stories where we hold our local public officials accountable
  • State politics

Q: What didn’t work?

A: Our first “listening” event was planned as a guided discussion to tap into the issues and topics that matter most to subscribers. It was held in late October 2019 at a local library, and we invited only subscribers (print and digital) to attend. This event was purposely more structured than the more casual “Coffee & Chat with the Editor” gatherings our newsroom had previously hosted. The latter tended to end with an attendee monopolizing one-on-one time with our editor — leaving others dissatisfied or worse, disgruntled — or would focus too heavily on home delivery/customer service questions, making it difficult to get feedback about the actual journalism.

For this event, our editor first addressed the room to explain the state of our newsroom and why we decided to host these listening events. Then, we went through a list of guided discussion questions for about 15 minutes each (e.g., Tell us about your life in North Jersey. What are the issues most important to you? Why do you subscribe? What do you want to see more of?). There was also a marketing representative in attendance who was available to answer any customer service questions at the end of the session.

Unfortunately, attendance was low — about five people showed up — and it made us take a step back and rethink our strategy. What gaps did we miss here?

Through an exercise with another team in the Table Stakes program, we learned that it would be an easier lift — and we would get more “buy-in” from the community — if we co-hosted with a local/community organization or group and opened it up to non-subscribers.

The lesson here: We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, and it was far too early to use this strategy as a way to get subscribers. We needed to earn their trust first. Turn to your community for support; you will find groups that want to engage with and trust their local news source.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

 A: We thought that our first big group subscriptions deal with a local school district would be an immediate slam dunk and that soon after it was signed we’d see that sweet spike of 2,500 new subscribers. Not so. We didn’t factor in that even with a grand-scale purchase, we would still have to grapple with inactive users. The school administrators were tasked with instructing 2,500 teachers and students on how to activate their subscriptions, and that ended up being a slow process.

We also thought reporters would immediately be on board with having stories behind the paywall because it was a departure from the page view model that at times put pressure on journalists to produce “viral” copy.

However, many expressed that it was important for their stories to be seen by as many people as possible. The prickliest debates were over stories that reporters considered a public service. Those conversations were not easy because most of what we write is a public service. Therefore, we rarely hesitate to mark stories as subscriber-only exclusively for reasons of public service because ultimately the time, resources and effort that went into the story helps us to make the decision that it was worth paying for.

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

A: We would have empowered all key newsroom players (local assignment editors, for example) to make calls on whether stories should be marked subscribers only. It’s not enough for one person to look for stories to be marked. We have a much better newsroom dynamic now that reporters and editors are bringing stories to the table as subscriber-only from the beginning instead of making the call right before they publish.

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

A: Don’t assume that your room will accept a change in strategy without question. They’re journalists! We went into this with the assumption that the newsroom had an understanding of basic analytics and would immediately get why we needed to build a framework around growing subscriptions. After presenting our subscription goal to the room, we realized that wasn’t the case and that we had to take a step back and do some explaining before we could properly (and successfully) sell everyone on this long-term plan.

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

A: Expect the unexpected! One part of our plan was to develop an event strategy that would help us connect to our audiences in different communities, to build trust and loyal readership. We got only a couple events in before the pandemic hit. Our hope is to revive the strategy in 2021, either virtually or eventually, in-person.

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