Photo by Andrew Skwish
Story by Thea Showalter (BSJ22)
Amidst a national crisis for local news organizations, Medill is seeking ways to save and strengthen the local news industry through the Local News Initiative (LNI), a groundbreaking project that aims to diagnose the challenges facing smaller news organizations and develop solutions.
For the past year and a half, Medill has collaborated with three newspapers, receiving hard-to-get data to analyze in exchange for providing the papers with crucial research on how to navigate the changing terrain of news media.
“LNI is developing new insights into reader behavior that is helping local news organizations grow their numbers of digital subscribers,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean of Medill and leader of the Local News Initiative. “This work is critically important now as local news organizations pivot from an advertising-supported business model to one focused on reader revenue.”
Newspapers have historically made the vast majority of their revenue from advertising, according to Associate ProfessorTom Collinger, Executive Director of the Medill IMC Spiegel Digital & Database Research Center. But as the habits of readers change, news organizations are increasingly depending on revenue from subscribers, not advertisers, leading to a pressing need to understand subscriber behavior.
In the fall of 2018, researchers from Medill’s Spiegel Research Center received 13 terabytes of subscriber data from its three partner papers— the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Indianapolis Star (Indy Star). The data would help the researchers probe questions about local news readership that had never before been answered.
“I’m especially proud that the analytical work that we have been doing is work that in many other industries would be easily available now online,” Collinger said.
But understanding local news subscriber behavior was far from easy. Researchers at The Spiegel Research Center had to merge two vast sets of data— subscriber data and clickstream data— to map how individual subscribers behaved when reading online.
In February of 2019, LNI came out with initial findings: in order to keep readers as digital subscribers, news organizations must encourage them to develop a regular reading habit and provide unique local content to make their subscription valuable.
Over the summer and fall of 2019, Franklin, along with Spiegel Research Center Director and Professor Ed Malthouse, presented LNI findings at the annual conferences for the Newspaper Association Managers, News Leaders Association, and Online News Association.
“We’ve gotten a whole lot of publicity on this,” said Malthouse. “It’s been very satisfying to see the work take off like this.”
For the Chicago Tribune, partnering with the LNI has provided an “outsider’s perspective” on audience data that, alongside the Tribune’s internal data analysis, has helped to “paint a broad picture of what content areas are the most valuable” to readers, said Christine Taylor, managing editor of audience at the Tribune.
The findings have shown the Tribune that its readers are “overwhelmingly” smartphone readers, prompting the Tribune to focus on its app in 2020, and explore tools to boost mobile engagement.
“It forces us to think about how we prepare and produce our content to meet those readers,” said Taylor. “It just makes us think differently about our deadlines— it makes us think differently about how we construct our stories. It’s really forcing the newsroom to just think very differently about how it approaches content.”
A year after the LNI began working with the subscription data, the LNI won a Google Innovation Award in October 2019 in order to build what is called a “subscriber engagement index,” a digital tool that will show local newspapers how their actions are impacting their subscribers in real time.
A newspaper that shares its data with the index will be able to see how its subscribers behave compared to other papers using various metrics, and how those behaviors contribute to retention and subscription rates.
“That’s where we’re going. We’re building this out as we speak,” said Collinger. “And it’s a significant piece of data work….The industry has never seen anything like this.”
In the next few months, LNI will also examine the “finances of customer retention,” said Malthouse. Finding strategies to encourage a reader to subscribe to a newspaper is only the first step.
“If you have a new customer, you have to nurture that relationship,” said Malthouse. “Teaching the news organizations how to take this new customer and nurture that relationship, and turn that person into a regular reader who values your content is the name of the game. So that, I think, is going to be a big part of where we go.”
Collinger added that Medill is uniquely qualified to lead the way on local news research, because the Local News Initiative is a product of all the programs that make Medill different.
“Medill uniquely has a world class journalism program and a world class integrated marketing communication program, and the integration of the best of those two things made this possible,” said Collinger. “It is not what makes Medill the same, but what makes us different in complementary ways that has allowed this to be such a wonderful expression of where we believe media is going.”