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How The Salt Lake Tribune developed Mormon Land to grow its national audience

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Consider reaching a national audience that cares about a topic your newsroom covers well. The national audience may not subscribe because the rest of your reporting isn’t as relevant to them. How could you get them to read, interact with, and most importantly, financially support your coverage?

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 Danyelle White, vice president of strategic initiatives and community engagement, and Eve Rickles-Young, digital media manager, both of The Salt Lake Tribune, which participated in the Major Market Table Stakes program in 2021.

Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?

Answer: The Salt Lake Tribune is a 151-year-old news organization that three years ago became the first major metro to transition to a nonprofit. We serve communities throughout Utah and beyond. 

Prior to nonprofit stewardship, The Tribune was owned by Paul Huntsman, who bought the paper from Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund. The significant structural transitions The Tribune engaged in helped it reach financial sustainability (we’re no longer losing money!) in 2021. Our mission today is to share essential local news and information, with a focus on listening on the front end of our process and incorporating solutions-oriented reporting when possible.

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

A: We have extensive, unique reporting on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and know there is an audience that cares about these stories outside of the traditional Tribune audience, including members of the church who live out of state. 

A screenshot of a featured Mormon Land story

Our problem was how to reach a national audience that we’d never tried to reach before with our traditional marketing efforts. They are a national audience who would care about our religious coverage but may not want to subscribe to The Tribune because the rest of our reporting isn’t as relevant to them. How could we get them to read, interact with, and most importantly, financially support our excellent faith coverage?

Additionally, as we’re new to nonprofit status, we wanted to see if we could raise funding outside of our traditional spaces – namely, asking people visiting our website to donate. A good portion of this audience likely will never make it to our website. 

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 initiative relates directly to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content”) as it’s a highly specific audience. The work also relates to Table Stake No. 5 (“Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build”) because Patreon is a relatively new platform for supporting content creators, and we previously hadn’t done much if any experimentation raising funds off our owned and operated platforms. It was also our first attempt at creating a vertical, which relates to Table Stake No. 7 (“Drive audience growth and profitability from a “mini-publisher” perspective”). 

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: This effort was born out of a failed Table Stakes experiment. As part of a design/do process to tackle Table Stake No. 5 mentioned above, we decided to try introducing a microdonation widget on specific stories. 

As a whole, the experiment failed, but we did notice that what little traction we did see was on our enterprise faith coverage. So we decided to pursue raising funds for that vertical. 

We knew from our data that this audience was large and comprised readers from across the U.S. We suspected there were likely others across the country we weren’t reaching organically, but who would support our coverage if we could reach them through less traditional (for us) marketing tactics and payment options. 

Mormon Land, as a mini-brand, has been around for years and already had its own content creation workflows and a rather large, loyal audience. David Noyce, managing editor, and Peggy Fletcher Stack, senior religion reporter, have been leading coverage of the church at The Tribune for more than three decades. They were already a well-oiled, two-person machine, creating a weekly podcast and newsletter


A screenshot of the Mormon Land newsletter

What we added was cross-functional support from the marketing and audience teams and a smart, highly invested intern to increase reach, optimize the current products and processes, and essentially create a new audience funnel that’s adjacent to our main business model.

Each week, David creates the newsletter as a robust one-stop shop of aggregated church-related news, which include everything from temple openings to cultural tidbits. It is a high-value piece of content because while you conceivably could get all of the information in it elsewhere, it would take you quite a bit of time to do so. 

It also typically includes a hefty amount of information, so one of the first things we did was put the full version of the newsletter only on the Patreon platform. The free newsletter got a bit shorter, but has maintained its about 45% open rate and less than 1% unsubscribe rate. We also have an even shorter version, which is typically just the lead item, that we put on our sltrib.com website and distribute via our organic social media channels.

David and Peggy host the podcast, which has aired more than 200 episodes. They interview expert guests on topics ranging from gender, LGBTQ and racial issues in the church to the LDS Church’s complicated history with vaccines to how missionary work is evolving. Each episode gets 40,000 to 60,000 listens on average.  

When we created a Patreon exclusively for our Mormon Land vertical, we initially set it up as a sprint. We used targeted advertising on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Spotify to reach people outside our Tribune followers. We gained traction and received a $20,000 grant. We put those funds mostly to marketing, but also toward swag – a coffee mug that is labeled “hot chocolate,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to Latter-day Saints’ (aka Mormons) not drinking coffee. 

We focused on growing our organic newsletter audience (outside of the Patreon) as a top-of-funnel effort, and we’ve nearly doubled our subscriber list year-over-year. We then use the newsletter list to make soft asks (Patreon ads within the newsletter) and targeted hard asks (dedicated emails to the audience asking them to join us on Patreon). 

We currently have around 250 patrons on Patreon, and we offer three tiers of support. Here are the Patreon levels:

$3 a month

  • A transcript of the weekly podcast.
  • Exclusive access to submit questions for upcoming guests.
  • Free access to exclusive content including Tribune subscriber-only stories.

$9 a month

  • Eligible for free giveaways and swag.
  • Quarterly invites to virtual recording of podcast.
  • Exclusive access to submit questions for upcoming guests.
  • A transcript of the weekly podcast.
  • A Mormon Land “coffee mug” for “hot chocolate”.
  • Free access to exclusive content including Tribune subscriber-only stories.

$20 a month

  • Two free tickets to the live taping of the 250th show.
  • A transcript of the weekly podcast.
  • Exclusive access to submit questions for upcoming guests.
  • Eligible for free giveaways and swag.
  • Quarterly invites to virtual recording of podcast.
  • A Mormon Land “coffee mug” for “hot chocolate”.
  • Free access to exclusive content including Tribune subscriber-only stories.

In terms of metrics, we have 7,836 newsletter subscribers. The newsletter has a 47% open rate and 6.3% click rate (average rates from the past 11 newsletters). We grew the newsletter audience by 300 people in January 2022 with a targeted Facebook and Instagram campaign, spending about $900.

We targeted ZIP codes across the country with high LDS populations with ads for the podcast and newsletter. Areas included Maricopa County, Ariz.; San Diego, Calif.; Tallahassee, Fla.; and Omaha, Neb.

We also asked Peggy, our religion reporter, to plug the Patreon on her own social media channels. We experimented with bonus content like an exclusive podcast episode only for patrons. 

Around Pride month, we did a roundup of LGBTQ-themed episodes along with a Patreon ask. Following recommendations and a deep dive into industry best practices, we decided to record a podcast trailer to be used for ad-related promotion on podcast channels to make sure we reach our target audience and grow potential audience awareness of Mormon Land.

Q: What worked?

A: From a general revenue perspective, we didn’t have high monetary goals on such a small-dollar effort. At the outset, Lauren Gustus, our executive editor, made the comment that if we could use the Patreon to fund Peggy’s reporting trip to the Middle East, that would be great. 

We didn’t put that down anywhere as a formal goal, but it stuck in the back of my mind. Well, this week we cashed out the balance in our Patreon for the first time, and it was more than $10,000, which funded the trip.  

Every time we sent a direct call-to-action for Patreon signup to our newsletter audience we got at least five to 10 new patrons. 

Peggy has relationships with local, national and international faith leaders and has 2,800 very engaged followers on Facebook. We have found success when Peggy posts about Patreon to her personal followers, particularly on Facebook. 

Q: What didn’t work?

A: As part of the grant fulfillment, we tested a texting/SMS platform. Our hope was to get patrons to sign up and use the platform to offer suggestions of questions to ask podcast guests, give feedback on coverage, and just create a more intimate, high-value reader experience. 

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. For one, we had a much more difficult time than we expected getting people to sign up for the platform. For those who did, engagement was lower than we’d hoped. We finally decided to discontinue the effort when a few trolls used the service to send sexually inappropriate and otherwise abusive messages to Peggy and Dave.

The Patreon exclusive podcast episode didn’t pull in as many new patrons as we had hoped. The Pride month roundup also did not bring many new patrons in. An audience survey we ran didn’t give us enough insightful information on what we do well and what could be improved within our newsletter and podcast audience based on the response rate being not high enough to build a broad understanding.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: Retention and CLV (customer lifetime value) are both higher than we ever could have imagined. Meanwhile, surveys indicated that our previous branding was not easily memorable to folks who were not loyal or in-the-know, despite their interest. The recommendation was to create a more recognizable logo, tagline and social media presence to enhance brand awareness around podcast listeners who are interested in the content we have to offer.

Q: Who is the team that supports this effort? What did you learn?

A: The team consists of one religion reporter, one editor, four marketing professionals and a photographer/podcast producer. We learned that Patreon growth doesn’t happen without dedicated, paid marketing and intentional campaigns. We also learned there is turnover each month regardless of our efforts.

As discussed earlier, Peggy’s Facebook posts helped grow our Patreon audience, using the pull of accessing the Tribune’s LDS coverage without needing to subscribe to the Tribune. That angle is particularly appealing to the LDS audience outside of Utah.

Q: What advice would you give to others who want to try moving their content to another platform?

A: Be sure to define your goals in advance. Within that framework, depending on your specific goals, be sure to understand your current audience, potential audience or both, and use that information to base your decisions on.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: We are experimenting with changes to the newsletter to make it more readable and skimmable. This includes creating a special section for our new podcast episode each week, moving the Tribune stories we’re highlighting up to the top of the newsletter, and experimenting with more eye-catching ways to ask folks to become Patreon patrons.

Read more on growing niche audiences: How the Las Vegas Review-Journal grew audience and revenue with its narrative podcast “Mobbed Up”