In December, a Nielsen Scarborough study suggested that in an average month, 169 million adults read a U.S. newspaper. They may be reading it in one or more iterations—in print, on the web, via a mobile app, courtesy of an e-newsletter or through a social media news feed.
Since the researchers crunched those numbers, the business of disseminating news has been even more dynamic and opportunity-rich. The election of President Donald Trump inspired what is colloquially referred to as the “Trump bump” among news pros, and “alt facts” has gone from an Orwellian idiom to a wellspring of meme fodder.
However, Trump’s rhetorical gamesmanship and his quest to rebrand media and the press as dishonest, untrustworthy and diminished—while portraying himself as the only true source of information—has been unsuccessful. His attempts to rebrand journalists and their publications have been ineffective.
Case in point, while the president tweets about a “failing” New York Times, the newspaper relished in a flood of new subscribers. President and CEO of The New York Times Co. Mark Thompson told CNBC hosts in November that the newspaper has been afforded “an extraordinary surge in subscriptions” since the presidential election—10 times the increase in subscribers the newspaper had during the same period of time the previous year. He also revealed that they’d had less churn since the election, especially in the digital space.
Since the “Trump bump,” E&P spoke with several news organizations on how they were dealing with the sudden influx of digital subscribers and how that has changed the way they conduct online marketing and promotions.
Asserting the Value Proposition
At Hearst’s Connecticut Media Group, Kerry Turner, director of audience development, said that the “theme of facts” has been used in marketing campaigns for Hearst’s publications.
“We believe, as do many newspapers, that our journalists are highly trained and follow ethics that other sources do not,” Turner said. “There is a lot of news out there, but it is important to encourage consumers to question the source of the news, and ensure that they are truly reading the facts.”
On the Chicago Tribune’s website, when a reader lands on the paper’s home page, a prompt in the upper right corner of the page invites the reader to subscribe. Clicking it on it takes the reader to an offer page, where the headline reads, “As times change, the need for quality journalism doesn’t.” The poignant and timely message is followed by an infographic that distinguishes between the reader’s subscription options. If the reader hesitates and lingers too long on the offers-and-options page, a pop-up appears and makes a final no-nonsense appeal: “Get an 8-week trial of the Chicago Tribune for just 99¢.”
The San Francisco Chronicle’s “subscribe” prompt takes readers to a similar page, where the options are all spelled out, and it, too, offers a timely and urgent reminder, “Journalism has never been more important.”
Not all audience-development campaigns have been due to Trump’s election or combating fake news.
At the Albuquerque Journal, vice president and chief revenue officer Joe Leong reported that mobile push notifications have become an effective way of reaching current and potential readers.
“In October 2016, we had about 5,000 users getting our push notifications,” Leong said. “We switched to a vendor called OneSignal, and now in April 2017, we have about 64,500 signed up with regular delivery of push notifications, without about a 4.5-percent click-through rate.”
In February, the New York Times announced its promotional partnership with music streaming service Spotify. For $5 a week, new subscribers not only enjoy an all-access digital subscription to the newspaper’s content, but also have a year’s worth of access to their favorite music, which the news publisher pointed out is valued at $120 per year on its own.
Last year, the Pew Research Center published “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016,” which revealed that 38 percent of U.S. adults rely on digital sources for news, including news websites or mobile apps—as opposed to 57 percent who said they get news from television, 25 percent who cited radio as a news source, and 20 percent who continue to get news from printed versions of the newspaper.
In the same study, researchers also delved into the impact of social media for news publishers. It revealed that 62 percent of adults in the United States access news through social media sites, with Facebook crowned as the most popular site of this kind.
Unquestionably, this presents a rich opportunity for news publishers to further some goals. Social media allows news organizations to inform a community that includes subscribers and non-subscribers alike. Similarly, it enables them to engage an audience beyond a newspaper’s inherent geographic reach.
From a marketing perspective, a social media presence can help build brand recognition, affirm identity and mission, and provide a new channel for delivering compelling messages that entice the audience to literally buy into the proposition.
When social media users click-through to a news article discovered by way of a news feed, it represents an immediate opportunity to remind readers of the value of the content they’re about to read.
Digital Success at the Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal has seen record-breaking membership growth, according to Suzi Watford, chief marketing officer. As of April, the newspaper had amassed 2.1 million paid subscribers. That’s a first-time milestone, according to Watford, who noted that approximately half of those readers enjoy digital subscriptions.
“We saw tremendous growth last quarter, particularly in digital membership, which increased 110,000 for the quarter—our largest quarter-on-quarter—and 252,000 year-on-year,” Watford said. “The election was undoubtedly an important event for us, as we decided to keep our paywall up, resulting in record traffic on WSJ.com, and the biggest week for organic subscription sales on record.
“This, however, is just one piece of the larger puzzle,” she added. “Our growth has been driven by the Journal’s content and our approach to constantly iterating and testing around the digital experience, from social sharing to engage prospective members to testing turning off Google’s First Click Free across the site. We continue to see this impact our growth year-on-year.”
Social media has been an effective audience-development platform, too.
“Social is at the heart of our membership strategy,” Watford said. “Giving members and journalists the opportunity to invite people to sample Wall Street Journal content is key. Our content is our greatest asset, and by using social sampling, we have doubled the size of our prospective pool while maintaining our audience and reach. It’s been about finding the right audience to drive to WSJ.com and getting them to read and sample content, and then convert to a paid membership.”
Recently, the publisher introduced a series of short digital films called “The Face of Real News.” To attest there’s nothing fake about the journalism done at the paper, the series takes readers behind the scenes with reporters and editors.
“(It) celebrates how the Journal’s stories are built, and highlights the groundbreaking reporting behind some of our biggest stories,” Watford said. “The goal was to engage our members and tell our story—reinforcing that the Wall Street Journal is journalism worth paying for. We felt, shining the spotlight on the work of our journalists was the perfect antidote to ‘fake news.’”
The Journal was also one of the first news organizations to erect a paywall and send a clear message to readers that its content is valuable. The paywall went up in April 1996, Watford recalled.
“Since then, there have been seismic shift in the ways that readers access, read and share content,” she said. “We’ve always believed quality journalism is worth paying for and continue to experiment with different ways to enhance the Wall Street Journal digital experience for our members, while also shaping new opportunities to introduce our content to new readers.”
As a vehicle for distributing content and as a subtle marketing tool, email can be a great asset to publishers today. Far from a dated technology, email allows newspapers to parse and share content, often for free. As a marketing instrument, it can help build brand recognition and loyalty, even among non-subscribers. In best-case scenarios, a well-circulated e-newsletter converts those non-subscribers to paying customers.
The Washington Post is a good example of a publisher leveraging email, delivering digital content to inboxes around the world. Currently, the news publisher has more than 60 opt-in email publications listed on its website—from general news and headline alerts to tailored, categorized content. There’s an e-newsletter called “Book Club” for bibliophiles, the cheeky-titled “The Monkey Cage,” for readers interested in commentary about politics and political science, and “The Post Most” curates real-time trending content that might include articles, video or photos. The publisher’s “Fact-Checker” digital publication provides “a weekly review of what’s true, false or in-between”—critical and timely. And when the never-ending need to fact check news takes its toll, readers can even decompress and re-center with “The Optimist,” handpicked stories that “inspire.”
When readers click through to particular content found in an e-newsletter, it chauffeurs them to where the content is hosted on the website, and that ensures greater exposure for the ads sold into those pages. It also may lead them to compelling messaging about the benefits of a subscription—digital, print or a blend of both.
At the Albuquerque Journal, email missives are opt-ins and free. Since the decision was made not to charge for e-newsletters, the daily publication grew by 6 percent, from 8,900 to 9,400 subscribers, Leong reported. The sports-focused e-newsletter is up by 15 percent; the email alerts with obituary information is up by an impressive 43 percent. And, since becoming a free publication, the newspaper’s “Business Insider” e-newsletter grew by 45 percent, from 2,113 subscribers to 3,075 by the first week of April this year, Leong said. In addition, his team has created an in-email banner ad position that the sales team will now sell, and several prospects have already expressed interest.
Email has also been tremendously influential at Hearst Connecticut Media Group, where Turner said there hasn’t been an email marketing program in place since 2015. In the years since, email marketing has become a mandate. Readers can receive breaking news via email, or opt-in to receive content that’s hand-selected by the editor each day.
“Implementing a robust engagement and acquisition email marketing program has been the single largest contributor to our improved subscriber retention,” Turner said. “Creating additional content newsletters is a current goal for the newsroom, as this will continue to be a way to entice more and more readers to build a readership habit with us. When you have a paper delivered to your doorstep each day, it’s a daily habit. Daily content newsletters are much the same concept; the goal is to build the daily readership habit in a digital format.”
Email publications are also the perfect channel to deliver other kinds of messaging, like the always-popular promotional giveaways.
“I believe it’s important to engage with our consumers regularly, in a variety of ways,” Turner said, “so they look forward to receiving emails from us, as well as deepening our digital brand recognition. We do through emails that promote content, reader rewards and events.”
Bumps are Momentary
While the president gets the branded credit for the “Trump bump,” the post-election phenomenon was more about culture than a singular cult of personality.
It was a cultural awakening of sorts, a reaffirmation that as a nation and democracy, journalism is essential sustenance. For newspapers, time will tell whether the “Trump bump” was just a passing phase or a real, sustainable, climbing trend. In the meantime, the hope is that news publishers will continue to deliver truthful and honest journalism on every available platform.
Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and printing for more than two decades. She has contributed to Editor & Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.