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 Mitch Pugh, executive editor of The Post and Courier, who led a team that took part in the Poynter Institute’s Local News Innovation Program in 2017-18.
API and Poynter teamed up to take a deeper look at The Post and Courier’s experience with transforming itself. Here, you can read about the news organization’s use of the mini-publisher approach, and over at Poynter, you can learn how the newsroom evaluated and updated its skills and paid closer attention to its metrics to grow digital subscriptions.
Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
Answer: We recognized that traditional revenue declines — in print advertising and circulation — were going to persist. We needed to build new products and audience revenue to reverse that trend.
To be successful, we enlisted everyone in our organization, not just our top leaders. We also needed a systematic way to track performance against our goals and to support what’s called the “mini-publisher” model.
Let’s take a moment to describe the “mini-publisher” model. As part of the model, a team’s responsibility goes beyond creating and distributing content and building audience. It also includes revenue generation, financial contribution and brand development, as outlined by Douglas K. Smith, Quentin Hope and Tim Griggs on Better News and in the “Table Stakes” manual.
The team’s leader acts like a general manager, accountable for profits and losses, audience, brand and other performance goals. This means that the team needs to span disciplines (across the newsroom and business units) and blend together all of the needed functions.
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 directly related 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: We loved the concept of mini-publishers. But we wanted those groups hyper-focused on their topic areas — on the ways in which they needed to engage and grow audience and on the mix of products required to drive that audience and revenue growth.
We analyzed data, particularly around digital audiences, to conduct a traditional SWOT analysis. (SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.) We selected the topic areas that scored the best through that analysis: food, politics, college sports, entertainment, real estate and professional wrestling.
To select the staff members for the mini-publisher teams, we identified folks who already “get it, do it” and a few others that had the ability to “get it, do it.” Then we aligned the staff members with the content areas that best fit their skills and interests.
For example, the mini-publisher group focused on food included the food editor/chief food critic; food reporter; executive editor; contesting sales lead (responsible for working with clients to sell sponsored contests); digital sales lead; and interactive editor.
But our mini-publisher groups couldn’t effectively manage toward the top-line financial and audience goals we set for our emerging product lines. So we created working groups to manage and share expertise on digital subscriptions, email sales, newsletter sponsorships, contesting and other emerging products like merchandise and podcasts.
As an example, the working group that has developed expertise on newsletters includes the marketing director, sales director, director of audience, digital sales director, newsletter producer/editor and politics newsletter producer.
We asked these working groups to set strategies for how to interact with each of the mini-publisher groups, establish training across departments to build knowledge in these areas and serve as consultants to mini-publisher groups that wanted to launch newsletters, podcasts, contests, etc., tied directly to their mini-publisher goals.
Now they meet weekly to review performance and drive results and report out to our overall project leadership team. But more importantly, they interact on a regular basis to support the efforts of the mini-publisher groups.
For example, we know sponsored contests can drive revenue and audience engagement, but they aren’t the solution for every group. So the contesting working group developed a contesting playbook for mini-publishers to consult and determine if this tool is the best solution for that group.
Q: What worked?
A: Not all mini-publisher groups worked as effectively as we planned. But we were successful in establishing a process to measure results and make decisions to fail fast. In the first year, we disbanded two mini-publisher groups (the ones focused on professional wrestling and entertainment) due to lagging results.
More importantly, however, we exceeded our top-line revenue goals and had several successes at the mini-publisher level. For example:
- Our goal was to produce $880,000 in audience and emerging product revenue in our first year, and we ended with $895,661.
- Over two years, we grew digital-only subscriptions by about 250 percent, from roughly 1,700 to about 5,975.
- Our newsletter strategy allowed us to increase subscribers by 47 percent in the first year, from roughly 104,000 to roughly 153,000. The overall open rate improved 11.5 percentage points across all of our newsletters.
- Our food mini-publisher group launched three revenue-generating events in the first year ($37,300 in total revenue); revamped the food newsletter and grew the audience to 28,194 subscribers; launched a podcast with 900 weekly followers and some early sponsors; and improved content to become one of our most successful sections on the path to digital conversions.
- We launched a new Inside Business Live series, with help from two mini-publisher groups, generating roughly $50,000 in new revenue.
Q: What didn’t work?
A: We initially believed mini-subscription offers, based on topic areas that readers are passionate about, would be a significant part of our success. We envisioned food and college sports, specifically, being popular categories that could drive readers to pay a fraction of the all-access subscription price to gain access to that specific content only.
Despite aggressive pricing and marketing these mini-offers, we had little success. Instead, we found these two categories appearing frequently in the path to full-price conversions. At the moment, we do not offer mini-subscriptions. Instead, we focus on presenting fanatic users of food and sports with specific lightbox messaging to help demonstrate the value we provide with our full-price offers.
We also believed podcasting would help us drive both audience and revenue and have been disappointed. Our food podcast has a decent following each week, but it hasn’t grown as quickly as we envisioned.
But the bigger issue has been monetization. Outside of a few adventurous advertisers, we’ve struggled to prove value to advertisers and our own advertising staff. We’ve since downgraded our expectations in that “other” bucket, a revenue category that includes everything from podcasting to photo reprints, and have focused more on merchandising, including items like posters of our front pages (e.g., Clemson football’s national title), branded T-shirts, hats and coffee mugs and smaller items like branded postcard books, pens and coasters.
Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?
A: We didn’t expect readers to be willing to pay for full access in the raw numbers and at the rate they are paying. We’ve found that by keeping our average rate closer to $10 per month, our acquisition has been strong and our retention rates have hovered around 97 percent. Our acquisition rate per capita in our market rivals the best in class.
We’ve also been pleasantly surprised by our audience’s willingness to engage with us through events. A recent event on education reform outside of our core market, some 3 ½ hours away in Greenville, S.C., drew 450 people. Clearly, we have underestimated our convening power and are working to take advantage of that to drive results.
Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?
A: We’d do much of it again. The failures helped make us stronger and better. The biggest lessons we’ve learned? Selecting the right people early to champion these initiatives is critical. Getting buy-in from all department managers is also critical.
The mini-publisher approach needs to become a strategy and language that the entire operation is familiar with and supports. As the project matures, it’s important to constantly re-evaluate our groups and the people that make up those groups.
If you have members that aren’t engaged or pulling their weight, it’s important to address that early and, if necessary, replace them with people committed to the project.
Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?
A: Don’t underestimate the time and energy required to make this work. It can’t just be another thing you are working on. It’s a fundamental re-shaping of your business and the way you work. As leaders, you have to be willing to commit the time and the focus to make this successful.
And you have to communicate clearly to the rest of the teams that the same is expected from them. Communication is the key here. You have to repeat the strategy and the language around it over and over again. When your team begins to finish your sentences, you will know you’ve done it right.
Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?
A: It works! We are seeing clear success in audience engagement and revenue. We initially began this process by setting a goal of $880,000 in the first year and $1.4 million in the second year. But with 12 months of results behind us, we revised our second-year goal to $2.5 million, based almost entirely on revenue trends in digital subscription revenue and events. We are on track to meet that goal.
By the end of our fifth year, we should be producing enough revenue through these initiatives to fund our existing newsroom. If those revenue trends are maintained, it will ensure we can continue to serve this community for years to come.