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How a small-town North Carolina newspaper became digital-first to save its 123-year-old legacy

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The News Reporter of Columbus County, N.C., built a digital-first workflow, established a metered paywall and consolidated its subscription plans. The result was an increase in its circulation and subscription revenue.

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 Jenny Clore, director of marketing of The News Reporter of Columbus County, N.C. (The News Reporter was in the first cohort of the Table Stakes program run by the University of North Carolina.)

API and Poynter teamed up to take a deeper look at The News Reporter’s experience with transforming itself. Here, you can read about how the Whiteville, North Carolina, newsroom shifted to digital using essential lessons from Table Stakes, and over at Poynter, you can learn how the news organization grew a loyal and paying audience online.

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

Answer: Due to changes in how readers consume their news, The News Reporter, like most newspapers across the country, has seen a decline in print circulation and advertising revenue. In April 2018, The News Reporter transformed itself from a twice-a-week newspaper with a marginal website to a 24/7 newsroom with a digital-first strategy.

The News Reporter was founded in 1896 and has been owned by the same family since 1938. Along with The Tabor City Tribune, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service in the fight against the Ku Klux Klan in 1953.

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 several Table Stakes, including Table Stake No. 1 (Serve targeted audiences with targeted content), Table Stake No. 2 (Publish on platforms used by your targeted audience), Table Stake No. 3 (Produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs) and Table Stake No. 4 (Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying/valuable loyalists).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: Prior to making any significant changes, we were encouraged by Penny Abernathy at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, to survey our audiences to gain insight and perspective about the changes we were planning to make. Not only would that give us data to make “data-based decisions,” but it gave us confidence to move forward with these changes. We obtained this data by using two different approaches: a “wide-net” survey posted on social media and our website, and three focus groups with a screened, diverse group of individuals. We received 200 survey responses and had five to seven people participate in each focus group. From these responses and the data we received, we felt confident moving forward with the solutions outlined below.

In April 2018, we launched our 24/7 newsroom, including a new website, NRcolumbus.com, and digital-first strategy. We empowered our reporters to post stories to the web as soon as a meeting or news event ended. The News Reporter is one of those places where many employees stay for their entire careers, so we had to help them build their digital skills. We also encouraged reporters to not only provide written stories but tell stories via video and photography. 

The redesigned NRColumbus.com launched in April 2018 and helped double page views. Eight months later, the News Reporter introduced a metered paywall and saw dramatic boosts in both print and digital subscriptions.

To drive traffic, we increased our website posting and social media presence — on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Our initial strategy for posting was to withhold stories from the web and social media only until after the stories were published in print. Since we are a twice-a-week newspaper, this resulted in inconsistent posting and low engagement, because the stories were “old” news. 

When we began to post to the web and social media first, we increased our traffic from 10,000 followers on Facebook to almost 14,000 in the first 12 months. After two years, we’re up to almost 19,000 followers, with consistent engagement. 

Video became an important part of our digital strategy. News Editor Justin Smith now produces the twice-weekly Columbus Report, a Facebook video review of stories in the paper and a preview of what’s to come. In addition, Smith interviews local newsmakers or influencers in the three-minute broadcast. The Columbus Report is sponsored and includes a short commercial at the beginning of each video.

We examined our analytics — particularly the top 50 viewed stories each week, social engagement and page views — to determine what kinds of stories our readers were consuming. Based on that data, we launched a weekly news newsletter and weekly sports newsletter.

We switched from Monday/Thursday print publication dates to Tuesday/Friday. The purpose of this change was to relieve some pressure on our newsroom staff. We realized our reporters were working seven days per week without any real break. Switching to Tuesday/Friday allowed our reporters to take Sunday off, rather than being in the office hammering out the paper for print Monday. We stopped using newspaper carriers and turned to the U.S. Post Office to deliver our papers, saving money and getting papers into customers’ hands earlier in the day.

In the past two years, we’ve gone through two significant overhauls in our subscriptions plans: from 48 plans to 8 and then from 8 to 2. Currently, our print + digital plan and our digital-only plan are both $65 per year or $6.50 per month. The home delivery price rose from $38 to $52. (In-county print-only delivery by the USPS is $52 per year.)

In February 2019, we launched our metered paywall at NRcolumbus.com. We increased our single-copy sales price from 75 cents to $1. We will launch our iOS and Android apps later this year.

Q: What worked?

A: When we launched the new website and 24/7 newsroom in April 2018, traffic spiked. We saw a dramatic increase in page views, from 150,000 to 300,000. Readers began getting into the habit of visiting the NR website to get the story they wanted. 

Eight months later, we launched the metered paywall. We’ve had some expected pushback, but overall, people have been willing to pay for their news. 

In the first five months of 2019 vs. the same period in 2018, our overall circulation revenue (income received from print and digital subscriptions combined) increased by 48% to $124,149. Our digital subscription revenue increased by 493%. Our print subscription revenue increased by 90%. 

The last time we raised our rack sale price was 10 years ago, from $0.50 to $0.75. Our increase to $1 per copy resulted in very little pushback from the community. Our unit sales have been down, but the revenue has still increased 51%.

As part of a larger subscription strategy, The News Reporter asked a longtime supporter to sponsor digital subscriptions for every student and teacher at the local high school. This resulted in a $7,000 gift, which went toward digital subscription revenue. The goal of the school sponsorship is not only to support local journalism but also to help students become more engaged in civic affairs. The NR staff plans to visit the school and host classes for students in the newsroom to explain the relationship between the press and the community.

 We also recently began offering corporate subscriptions. For a slightly reduced price, all employees receive year-long all-access subscriptions, courtesy of their employers. Companies view this as an employee benefit. Some companies can write off subscriptions as a business expense.

If we hadn’t made the shift to a 24/7 newsroom and implemented the metered paywall on our website, we would not have had the success we are seeing today. We decided to focus on quality content and delivering where our audiences are reading their news. 

Another key ingredient to our success was simplification. We were offering too many subscription options, and readers were getting lost in the mix. Our use of audience data, coupled with the trust and loyalty that the News Reporter has earned over the past 120-plus years, gave us more confidence that we would survive implementing the paywall.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: It can be challenging to select a paywall that can manage both print and digital subscriptions. Most software options available to manage both were outside our price range, costing $30,000 or more per year.

We decided to keep our print subscription database and go with a paywall that could manage our digital subscriptions. We thought we’d be able to manage both separately. But many customers were choosing both print and digital subscriptions (which is actually what we wanted).

Managing customers’ subscriptions in two different databases required a lot of manual entries each month, increasing our errors and our need for damage control, while decreasing efficiency and quality.

After two months, we had to leave our provider. We turned to Subscription DNA, a new circulation management system that provided a metered paywall and managed both print and digital subscriptions.

The integration of the two databases took at least 40 to 50 hours. We had to merge print and digital records in order not to import duplicates into the new system. It was tedious but absolutely worth it.

Subscription DNA has streamlined our circulation department’s processes and saved so much frustration and time putting out fires. It is cost-effective for smaller to medium-sized organizations, and its staff has been willing and able to make customizations specific to our publication. 

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: Several things surprised us:

  • Acceptance: The community was more open to the changes than we thought.
  • Sustained growth: After five months of having the paywall in place, we are still seeing significant revenue growth in circulation. We had heard we may experience a one- to two-month bump and then revenue would level out, but thankfully, due to our newsroom and digital-first initiatives, we’re able to meet our audiences where they are with content they want to see.
  • Decreased street vendor sales: We have three vendors who sell papers on distribution days. Their sales have decreased 34%. That could be caused by several reasons:
    • Local construction affecting flow of traffic to vendors.
    • Metered paywall causing more customers to subscribe online and get the paper delivered at home (forgoing the need to purchase the paper from a street vendor). 
    • Change in distribution days to Tuesday/Friday.

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

A: When we first began, the number of paywall vendors that truly understood the dynamics of a small independent newspaper was limited. We learned that each vendor has a niche market and product that they cater to — many of which won’t meet the needs of local newspapers. If we had to do it over again, we’d start with a paywall provider that had the capability of managing both print and digital subscriptions. That would have been a non-negotiable from the beginning.

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

A: 

  • If you need to pivot, do it quickly: The increase in our digital subscriptions was great. But it was overwhelming for our circulation folks; four staff members had to handle each subscription transaction before it was complete. We knew we needed to change things quickly. We evaluated the problem with our previous provider (having to track print and digital subs on different databases). We researched the best software that can manage both print and digital subscriptions and allows us to still maintain full service from the U.S. Post Office.
  • Do your research: Reach out to your colleagues and don’t give up until you know you’ve found a vendor that meets all your publication and data management needs. 
  • Don’t let your fear of community response prevent you from doing something that’s better for the vitality of your organization: Our leadership lost sleep over changing subscription plans/pricing and switching from Monday/Thursday distribution (a schedule that is 123 years old) to Tuesday/Friday. We knew both of these changes would be better for our staff and the company. Once we pulled the trigger, it turned out there was much less pushback than we had anticipated; in fact, there was very little. 
  • Don’t be scared to tell your story: Be transparent. Why are you making these changes? What does it mean for your company and what value does it have for the community? Who would fill the vacuum if The News Reporter wasn’t here?
  • Don’t be afraid to test: We spent a lot of time testing our market. We partnered with the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Media and Journalism to gain insight from focus groups and surveys. Through that process, we gleaned information about our readership that helped affirm our decisions. It also helped us realize where we needed to adjust or communicate differently. 

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

A: Our focus on digital subscriptions and distribution has helped offset advertising losses. Our revenue continues to trend in a positive direction as circulation becomes a more significant part of our revenue model.

It’s difficult to predict how long we can expect this positive trend to last. Colleagues who have implemented paywalls in the past advised us that after three to five months, circulation would level out. But we’re entering our seventh month with the paywall and continue to see an increase in circulation. We plan to ramp up our efforts to continue to increase print and digital circulation through the year. Our goal is to add an additional 1,500 subscribers (print and/or digital) by the end of the 12-month period.

Print is still an important part of our business plan due to the demographics of our community, a primarily older age group. We’ve structured our newsroom and business model to be “digital first, print bigger and better later.” That allows us to build digital readership but not forsake print.  So far, it’s working. However, one thing we’ve learned from participating in the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative is always to be evaluating the data and be ready to shift when something stops working.