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How the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel drove subscriptions by asking journalists to promote the value of their work

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Ask the journalists in your newsroom to tell readers about the value of their work and be ambassadors for digital subscriptions on social media.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Rachel Piper, digital news director at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which took part in the major market Table Stakes program in 2017.

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

Answer: After strong digital subscription growth the past few years, we’re finding ourselves in a spot where the low-hanging fruit is gone. People won’t subscribe just because a subscription is available. But we know our digital reach is much higher than our current pool of digital subscribers. How do we turn loyal-ish readers — who apparently haven’t been tempted by flash sales, email marketing or in-article messaging — into paying subscribers?

To complement those newsroom and business-side strategies, we’ve asked our individual journalists to be ambassadors for digital subscriptions on social media.

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. 4 (Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying/valuable loyalists).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We emphasized to the newsroom that digital subscriptions are our future, and that growing our subscriber base is the responsibility of everyone in our newsroom. Beyond talking about this — a lot — we’ve also given people specific ways to help. Over time, individual reporters have built a strong sense of ownership over digital subscriptions and feel a responsibility to help grow our numbers. Advocating for the Journal Sentinel brand and asking people to subscribe no longer seems like the responsibility of someone else in a different department. And when these reporters ask their followers and fans to subscribe, it has a different power than our other asks and offers. Here are some tips.

We made it easy and painless for reporters.

Emily Ristow, then our loyalty and engagement news director, wrote Twitter threads about local journalism and asked reporters to, at a minimum, retweet these. (Ristow is now director of local news transformation at the American Press Institute.) She also provided language that reporters could use in their own personalized tweets. And she wrote out tutorials for how to change email signatures to include a link to our subscription offer page.

We keep journalism at the forefront.

When encouraging those in the newsroom to share subscription callouts, we’ve made sure to tie it to our journalists’ excellent, important work. Rather than telling reporters just to hawk the cheapest deal, we’ve asked reporters to share journalism they are proud of — their own or that of a colleague — and note that people can “support work like this by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.”

That’s now become the norm for our journalists.

For example, after Wisconsin’s Republican Legislature passed laws in early 2019 to limit the new Democratic governor’s powers, statehouse reporter Molly Beck tweeted:

Reporter Ashley Luthern wrote a thread of highlights from her colleagues’ ongoing investigative series on ambulance diversion. She finished with a link to our subscription offer page and this callout:

A heavily discounted subscription sale prompted political reporter Patrick Marley to urge his followers to subscribe, while previewing what our team would cover in 2020: a legal fight over voter rolls, a special election and Supreme Court race, the Democratic National Convention hosted in Milwaukee and more.

At key times, like the start of a team’s season or the launch of an ongoing project, we’ve also asked reporters to write columns explaining how they cover their beat and to preview the kind of stories that readers could look forward to. Calls for subscriptions were key to these columns, but they were also a chance for us to be transparent about the work we do and for reporters to build their brands and connect with readers as individuals.

We appealed to journalists’ hungry, competitive nature.

OK, so sometimes it does come down to winning. We’re part of a large network of news sites, which occasionally runs subscription contests for its newsrooms. Some of these came with cash prizes for the newsroom, which we used to celebrate subscription milestones with an ice cream social and a nacho bar. Other contests tracked individuals’ contributions, so we stoked internal competition with updating tallies and pointed to successful efforts. Some reporters kept it straight with journalism-related appeals; others went personal with photos of their kids and pets.

The newsroom celebrates reaching digital subscription milestones with a taco party.
(Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Q: What worked?

A: Involving reporters in asking people to subscribe had an immediate payoff of bringing in new subscribers. Dozens of new subscriptions were tracked to individual pleas. Individual reporters had built trust and relationships with readers who were willing to open their wallets to support the work.

The bulk of the newsroom takes part in subscription contests or newsroom-promoted sales in some way, at a minimum sending out their own asks using provided language, or retweeting callouts from flagship social accounts or their colleagues. Along with the assertive asks on social media — mainly Twitter — many reporters also include a link to our subscription page in their email signatures.

We use URL codes to track the source of subscriptions. A concentrated push during the period of a newsroom contest and subscription deal typically yields us more than 100 subscriptions tracked directly to the newsroom. And in one contest that used promo codes to track subscriptions to individual journalists, photographer Mike De Sisti brought in 25 — the most of anyone in Gannett.

Photographer Mike DiSisti donated his contest winnings to a local domestic violence shelter. (Photo courtesy of Sojourner Family Peace Center Milwaukee)

And many reporters don’t wait for a sale or contest to promote subscriptions. More than a dozen reporters regularly tweet about the benefits and importance of subscribing.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: There were diminishing returns to the contest-driven subscription calls, especially when they were just a few weeks or months apart. We were probably scooping up some low-hanging fruit, such as friends and family, with some of those efforts.

But building the habit of asking helped our journalists feel more comfortable mentioning — or defending — subscriptions in future interactions with readers and followers.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: We started seeing some readers become subscription advocates, too. There’s always the person who will gripe about hitting the paywall or being asked to pay money to read, but we now have more people who will step in to point out how relatively inexpensive a subscription is, that our reporters deserve support, and highlight the importance of local journalism.

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

A: Ask people to do this sooner! Nobody balked at the idea, but some people are natural self-promoters. Others were more than willing to help, but needed to be directly asked or guided.

Through this process, we realized that pageviews have become the default measure of success for reporters. Reporters know the value of subscriptions, but the number of pageviews a story gets is a more immediate and tangible measure. We’ve kept subscriptions top of mind for our newsroom through celebrating milestones, but we’re only now building measures like “associated new subscriptions” into author-level analytic reports alongside pageviews.

We’ve also learned that it’s important to make our readers and followers aware that subscriptions are what support the reporting and storytelling that they enjoy.

Asking people to subscribe has become part of our DNA, and we won’t stop the continual drumbeat of asking people to support journalism. The next step is to plan more strategically around sales and time subscriber-only investigations or other exclusive content to publish during key sales.

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

  1. Include all corners of your newsroom. Some of our most successful subscription calls have been from our sports reporters.
  2. Give people resources for how to proactively or reactively point out the benefits of a digital subscription.
  3. Be transparent and communicate about results and growth.
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