Shoptalk: 10 Strategic Rules for the Digital News Business

By: Bob Atkinson

Publishers in the U.S. and beyond have spent much of the past decade looking for new business models in the digital news era. To those few with high brand value and, more importantly, highly-valued specialty content, the answer can be relatively simple. Put up a hard paywall and sell print+digital offerings that drive new revenue without poaching from your existing print audience.

But, for the other 95 percent of news titles, the answers are less clear. Ten years into the fray, many clients I work with share a reactive/tactical mindset. The key elements are usually: cutting costs to the bone (compromising product quality) and rolling out a stream of new product packages and promotional schemes.

With this in mind, a few key strategic rules, based on what’s working so far …

 1.   Content is still king—stop giving it away

People still want news and opinion relevant to their interests and needs. If you have content of interest to an audience—by location and/or topic—it’s your most important asset and should not be given away lightly.

2. Be current, visual, brief and look good on a smartphone

If you have yesterday’s (or last week’s) news today and it looks bad on a smartphone you’re irrelevant to much of your audience. Traditional ‘front page’ interfaces are being replaced with user-specific content mixes – show them just what they tell you they want.

3.  News is a multi-way communication

Commenting and social-media sharing are table stakes. You need to tease your content there as it’s developed. If you’re behind a paywall, use external landing pages for people arriving from the social-media posts. That funnel drives trial subscriptions.

4.  Don’t give up print ad dollars for digital ad pennies

Print newspaper advertising is still far more lucrative than digital advertising, so digital news offerings should not ‘poach’ from existing print audiences.

5.  Free trials work

Free or (or low-priced) 30-day trials digital subscriptions. The signup process must be fast and easy. If they enjoy three well-timed e-mail or text touch points during the trial are essential. And they must offer value – typically bonus content—not just a ‘buy now’ message.

6.  Get out of the ‘page view rat-race’

Low Web and mobile CP/M ad rates make it tough to build revenue unless you deliver millions of impressions a month. Digital subs and new online advertising products, services and pricing models are the answer. Site or section-level sponsorships, native ads and in-app/location-aware mobile ads are important new revenue drivers.

7.  Web and mobile specialty products are important

New digital-only vertical-market products are an increasingly important strategy—sports, real estate, automotive, lifestyle, 50+ and health/wellness are strong verticals in most markets.

8.  Old content can still make money

Re-packaging and re-selling content you already have can be lucrative. Archive special interest content—local/regional news, personalities, sports, etc.—is easily re-packaged into new Web, mobile or e-book products with high profit margins.

9.  Measure audience behavior and focus on the numbers that matter

Measuring audience behavior is critical to keeping content, design and features in line with user tastes. But 70 percent of what I see in typical analytics reporting for news organizations is irrelevant. User engagement is all that really matters.

10.  Fast and cost-efficient tools make it easy to build rich-media content

Video, slide shows, maps, illustrations and polls or surveys are all powerful content formats to drive engagement and traffic. And new tools allow non-technical staff to build them faster and easier than ever. Journalism and content production hare merged, changing news departments from vertical (role-based) to horizontal (subject-based) structures.     


Bob Atkinson is a digital publishing strategy consultant and principal at Newsstand21. He can be reached at

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Published: December 19, 2014


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