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How the Sacramento Bee used ‘sprints’ to drive digital subscriptions

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The Sacramento Bee used a SMART-goal setting process to find audiences willing to pay for its work.

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 Lauren Gustus, west region editor for McClatchy, and Amy Chance, a senior editor for The Sacramento Bee.

API and Poynter teamed up to take a deeper look at The Sacramento Bee’s experience with transforming itself. Here, you can read about how the news organization experimented with serving specific audiences in an effort to grow digital subscriptions, and over at Poynter, you can read how journalists at The Bee and its sister publication The Fresno Bee changed how they cover food.

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

Answer: We believe our future success will be built around the value people see in our work — and their willingness to pay for it — versus today’s model of diminishing returns for programmatic advertising. In 2018, we set an ambitious goal for our newsroom: Find and share stories that will drive digital subscriptions to build a self-sustaining newsroom. If we take all of our news expenses (including benefits, travel, freelance, etc.) and divide it by the average annual cost of a digital subscription to The Bee, we get 54,000. So our goal is to grow and keep 54,000 digital-only subscribers. We’re at 22,000 as of May 2019 and hope to reach our goal in two to three years.

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 Table Stakes Nos. 1, 2 and 3. We first must serve targeted audiences with targeted content (No. 1). We’ve got to be on the platforms they’re using (No. 2). And we must continuously supply readers with fresh content on a schedule that works for them (No. 3).

McClatchy, which owns The Sacramento Bee and 29 additional news organizations across the country, already had an audience-focused approach that asked us to consider the “jobs” we do for our audiences. For example: Are we holding the powerful accountable? Are we helping readers live their best lives by providing high-utility journalism? The Table Stakes initiative pushed us to take that approach to the next level, using criteria to select and test several target audiences to see which content drives them to become paying digital subscribers.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: A working group of editors and reporters developed the criteria for our target audience groups. This is what we look for:

  • This audience “self-identifies” as part of a group.
  • Our analytics show this audience has a high likelihood of return visits.
  • This audience has a connection to our region.
  • We can “own” this audience locally.
  • We can “do a job” for this audience.
  • We can identify multiple opportunities for revenue with this audience.
  • We can identify a reporter/team with a track record of attracting readership.
  • We can identify a reporter/team able to run coverage on various platforms.
  • We can identify a reporter/team willing to do the sprint.

We opted to test four audience groups, and we launched “sprints” for each one — short, focused reporting efforts that would shed light on the content leading these groups to subscribe.

  1. State workers: There are more than 150,000 of them in California, and a majority live in the Sacramento area. We had already started to engage with this group, and we took it further with a sprint.
  2. Local diners and drinkers: These readers are interested in stories about the local dining scene, including restaurant openings and closings, as well as other local food news.
  3. Health care workers: They make up the single largest employment sector in the Sacramento area.
  4. Homeowners and “wannabe” homeowners: They seemed more likely than renters to consider a digital subscription.

The “sprint” terminology is borrowed from developers. We liked it because it allowed us to learn and get results quickly. If we failed, that was fine. If we found success, we kept going.

The reporting efforts run from six to eight weeks. We meet first with the lead editor in the newsroom to get buy-in. Then we connect with the assigning editor and reporter, again to build support. We draft a plan that includes the strategy and tactics we’ll use to achieve our SMART goals for the experiment (SMART stands for specific, measurable, aggressive yet achievable, relevant and time-bound). And we measure obsessively, meeting every week to discuss results and build new story plans.

A sample sprint goal: We will grow audience by writing at least five high-utility and high-interest food stories a week. And we will know success if we see a 20 percent increase in page views and a 50 percent increase in subscriber views, a key metric for us as we look to grow digital subscribers.

Since adopting the method, we have expanded to other newsrooms in McClatchy’s West Region. So, for example, The Fresno Bee recently sprinted on the subject of Yosemite National Park.

If the sprint is successful and not built around an event with a defined end date, we discuss a transition to a “marathon.” We’re still working on this language, because we don’t know many people who love to run marathons.

Q: What worked?

A: We found that when we concentrated on content for these audiences, most of the stories led to some of the top engagement scores for content produced in our newsroom, as measured by the American Press Institute’s Metrics for News.

During the two-month period we measured, stories aimed at homeowners ranked highest in engagement, followed by stories aimed at state workers and diners and drinkers, which were tied. Health care workers, an audience we hadn’t previously sought to serve, scored slightly above our site average.

The chart above shows a snapshot of audience engagement data from the Sacramento Bee’s two-month sprint experimenting with new coverage areas designed for key audiences.

Over a two-month state worker sprint, we can attribute 87 subscriber conversions to our reporting. That was a sharp increase over previous efforts, due to the sprint and associated activities (adding calls-to-action in stories, sending subscriber offers in newsletters that originated from the newsroom, etc.).

We combined our newsroom sprints with business-side efforts, including a tightened paywall, additional audience team members and better data on who visits us at what frequency and for what purposes. Our digital subscriptions increased by more than 50 percent in 2018.  

Q: What didn’t work?

A: Stories written for health care workers, as well as those written for diners and drinkers, did not show up as strongly in the “first story read after converting” bucket, but their engagement scores were strong.

We concluded that they are still valuable in the path of stories someone reads before they convert because of their strong engagement scores. Grocery store news also does well. High-utility food reporting outperformed our more review-oriented work. So we are now doing more qualitative food reporting, versus authoritative. For example, we wrote a story about the best Chinese dishes in Sacramento instead of reviewing a specific Chinese restaurant. The editor who assigned the top dishes story is taking a new subscriber to lunch to try one of the dishes after the subscriber wrote to say that he signed up specifically to read the story. We’re having fun along the way.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: As we catalogued the first stories readers chose to read after activating a digital subscription, we found several categories of coverage that weren’t on our initial list. Breaking news, in particular, was an area readers wanted enough to pay for. So were high school preps coverage and editorial board endorsements. Our California state Capitol coverage is very competitive, with multiple media outlets participating. We didn’t even consider testing it at the outset. Yet it showed up clearly as a reason people subscribe to The Sacramento Bee.

This screengrab shows the SMART goal the city hall reporter and editor created ahead of her sprint and looks at results for key metrics The Sacramento Bee tracks, such as subscriber page views.


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

A: We have continued to use the sprint process even after our Table Stakes year concluded. Right now we are “sprinting” on education, weather, analytical stories out of city hall, and stories generated by our Hearken audience engagement tool.  

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

A: Study existing data, build a SMART goal and jump in on tactics your team thinks can get it there. You need enough content to demonstrate clearly that an audience is or isn’t engaging. Don’t wait too long to set things up and don’t allow for long periods between stories — that all hampers the effort. And meet weekly to review performance and build your plan for the week ahead. Set an end date.

If you’re successful, plan for how you transition from a sprint to a marathon. You’ll have the data to demonstrate why your sprint was a success. Sharing those successes with key decision makers, and the newsroom more broadly, should help you get buy-in you’ll need to make the change stick. We all must be more nimble about shifting beats and coverage areas. This is a low-risk way to determine if your ideas have legs.

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

A: Make sure you keep your results data and meet regularly to stay on track. Hold editors and reporters accountable to weekly check-ins during the sprints. If you don’t commit to the process, you won’t get the desired results.

Related content: See how the Sacramento Bee worked together with a former competitor to grow their audiences.