Did you feel a supernatural chill on Jan. 10, 2019? Did the earth split open near you on the second Thursday of the first month of the year 2019 A.D.? I wouldn’t be surprised. That is the day that I, Timothy Joseph Gallagher, being of sound mind and body, and who has had a newspaper delivered each morning and/or afternoon for approximately 40 years, cancelled his print newspaper subscription.
The day has been on my mind for more than a year, but I could not bring myself to “stop the paper” no matter what changes they made. They reduced the web width again. They combined sections. They went to an outside printing facility so evening sports scores and council meetings were reported a day late. The carrier could not correctly calculate my vacation stop. And then—just as I was tiptoeing to the end of the plank—they pushed me. The cost for the print subscription rose to just under 50 bucks per month. Nearly double what I had been paying.
Perhaps the biggest factor, however, was the habit I developed of reading tomorrow’s newspaper on my tablet tonight. When I called to cancel—and spoke to the customer service desk halfway around the world—my monthly bill for a digital-only subscription dropped to $6.99. I began life as a digital-only subscriber to my local paper, a Southern California regional paper and a national paper.
I waited. There were some withdrawal symptoms. The carrier even mistakenly dropped off the paper one day. And then about a week later, I was having lunch with a man who works for one of the world’s largest digital advertising wholesalers. He told me just how sophisticated this world of digital content and advertising is becoming.
His colleagues got into a cab in Midtown. In bumper to bumper traffic, they noticed the digital ad sign on the cab in front of them in traffic was serving ads and news content specifically tailored to them. A company had figured out how to track their phones (which track their interests) and serve them content directly in their viewing space while they were in a slow-moving vehicle in one of the world’s largest cities.
Um, can your newspaper do that?
Does your newspaper have to do that in order to survive? Only if you do it well.
The print newspaper edition is on palliative care. The model has changed for good. There is some excellent research about what happens when a newspaper drops print subscriptions. And there is always Paul Gillin’s Newspaper Death Watch, the black humor blog that does a good job tracking newspapers that drop print and head to digital-only.
The Media Insight Project has done the best job of tracking why people choose to subscribe digitally. The results should be encouraging to publishers and editors who value accurate and high-quality local journalism. (If you’re thinking about cutting your newsroom on your path to profitability, just stop reading now.) In fact, “supporting local journalism” is the top reason about one-third of digital subscribers cite. And about two-thirds said they strongly desired access to local community news.
Discounts matter and you might have to let them have a few months of content for free in order to hook them as paying customers.
The size and demographics of your market matter. Those readers coming from smaller communities tend to hold onto their print subscriptions longer than those in metro areas. Those converting to digital tend to be younger, skew male and have attained a higher level of education.
Digital-only readers are retained by paying attention to important local news and reporting it fairly and accurately.
The temptation as we move to a digital audience is to mine the crumbs that digital readers leave behind and convert that into more attractive news and advertising. When this is done well, customers see it as convenience. When it’s done intrusively, customers find it creepy. As we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the backlash against social media digital detective work and major data breeches grows stronger.
Citizens do crave a certain amount of privacy and we need to respect that even as we serve them in a digital diner.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.