As Readers Move More Toward Digital, How Are Newspapers Fulfilling Their Needs?

For so long newspapers have designed content with the print customer in mind, but times are changing. A recent Pew Research Center study based on 3,425 U.S. adults concluded that of those that preferred to read the news (as opposed to listening or watching the news), 63 percent preferred reading online verses 17 percent that preferred print.

As more consumers turn to digital, unquestionably their needs and wants will differ from the traditional print consumer. So, how are newsrooms catering to their reading experience? E&P asked some newsroom leaders to find out.

Print Vs. Digital Consumers

Even with the high amount of people receiving news online, it can be easy to forget that there are still consumers out there that enjoy the print product. In fact, a report by The Media Insight Project (a collaboration between the American Press Institute and The AP-Norc Center for Public Affairs) surveyed 4,100 newspaper subscribers across 90 local newspapers throughout the country and identified a few paths (or groups) that still prefer print over digital, specifically those who have “a nostalgic attachment to the print paper itself,” said Jeff Sonderman, API’s deputy executive director.

“They want to have a print paper at Sunday morning with coffee and their breakfast. It’s not so much that they like the content of the paper but they like that experience in their life, and it’s something that they have done for a long time,” he said.

Jeff Sonderman

On the other hand, the digital reader is more complex. Of the report’s nine groups, two are clearly digital-based: the digital paywall converters and the social media-mobile discoveries. However, many others can either benefit from digital engagement or already engage digitally, such as the topic hunters, who look for coverage on a particular subject and consisted of 23 percent of the surveys participants—the second largest group after journalism advocates (24 percent).

“In digital spaces, we find that readers follow their passions and their interests more strongly,” Sonderman said. “When you’re reading in print you’re in more of a browsing mode where you’ll flip page to page through sections you might not be that interested in to see what’s there. For the most part, because of the way that digital works, you’re choosing a link to click, you’re making a much more focused decision on ‘Do I care about that thing to go there and spend time?’”

On top of that, the digital reader has the “whole world” available to them, Sonderman said. Hence, news publishers really need to ask themselves what kind of content will their readers engage with and go from there.

Newsrooms and Audiences Evolve

Advancing technology has led the news industry to evolve over time and it continues to do so. According to an INMA report by Dietmar Schantin, founder and CEO of Institute for Media Strategies, media companies are currently shifting into a mobile-centric newsroom.

“The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 revolutionized the way people interact with technology,” Schantin wrote. “For most news websites today, mobile phones are the number one device people use to visit a site and the share is still growing.”

Schantin recalls a time when news organizations began putting print content online and there were separate teams for print and web. Digital employees were “tolerated but were often seen as second-class citizens, very often more skilled in technology than in journalism.”

As digital grew, a second newsroom emerged, one where there were separate heads for platforms, but no separate teams for content. Reporters wrote for whatever was needed in print or digital. The next development was the media-integrated newsroom, where the decision of where to publish is left to the separate head, who becomes a “mini-editor-in-chief” for his or her topic. There are no separate responsibilities for print and online anymore.

“Newsrooms continue to evolve since the world evolves,” Schantin wrote. “Currently, mobile consumption is what the media industry has to master because the audience is there.”

In Ohio, the Cleveland Plain Dealer is one of those evolving newsrooms. In July, the newspaper launched Lakewood Together, a text messaging program which costs $3.99 a month. It’s a part of Project Text, a new tool from Advance Local.

Lakewood Together has one reporter, Emily Bamforth, who sends text messages to subscribers once or twice a day sharing the latest news in restaurant openings, government decisions, road constructions and other topics regarding the suburb of Lakewood.

“It’s just a short communication—the kind you get every day from friends of yours,” said Chris Quinn, editor and president of Advance Ohio.

Chris Quinn

According to Quinn, digital readers want information quickly, and Lakewood Together might be a great method of meeting that need. Hundreds of people have already signed up, Quinn said.

“It’s clear that the digital audience’s attention span is smaller,” he said. “I know clearly from what we see every day (which) is the traditional long form newspaper story generally does not get read. People want the information injected straight into their arteries and they don’t want to waste a lot of time.”

The method may be able to fulfill a digital news consumer’s desire to have news immediately and provide hyper-local news through a platform other than print, and mobile seems to be the direction the industry is headed, as suggested by Schantin’s report, although he also realizes that one day a new fifth type of newsroom might emerge.

Sonderman seems to agree. “This is not like a one-time disruption to digital that will then settle down again (where) in 40 years everyone is going to know what to do. It’s uncomfortable—pretty much keep being uncomfortable.”

Creating a Digital Funnel

In 2015, the Virginian-Pilot was still pretty much a print-centric newsroom. It wasn’t until a year later that the newsroom decided to embrace digital and start taking the platform more seriously. The shift was largely due to a change in leadership, explained senior editor Jeff Reece.

“In the past, most of their senior leaders had been promoted from within the ranks and for the first time, most of the senior leadership actually came from the outside,” he said. “Those of us hired were hired specifically to change the culture and work towards a more digital focus.”

One of the first things that the newsroom did, like most other news outlets, was ask themselves, “Who is the audience?”

Jeff Reece

“Traditionally newspapers have been sort of an ‘eat your vegetables’ sort of institution, which is, ‘This is important, you should read about this.’ But we never really thought, well, ‘Who’s reading and it, why is it important?’” Reece said.

In order to engage the digital audience and drive subscriptions, the Pilot had to change that traditional way of thinking. They began to “move away from the idea of sort of an audience as a model, (and) think more in terms of audiences, and they can be defined in different ways,” Reece explained.

In addition, the Pilot created a digitally-focused reporting team called the DART (Digital Action in Real Time) Squad in 2016. The group responds to daily breaking news and trending topics, and also took on enterprise stories and “obsession beats”— non-traditional beats that readers are interested in.

In early 2017, the team started helping with engaging readers and driving subscription growth, when the newsroom began measuring engagement and traffic through scores they had created in API’s Metrics for News and found that the DART Squad was producing stories that were popular with readers. Now able to consistently see what was working and what wasn’t, the newsroom began to change their approach to coverage.

“We didn’t turn our nose up at things that we knew would engage readers but might not be of the greatest journalistic importance,” Reece said.

For example, the Pilot wrote five pieces featuring the 10 most expensive houses in each city that they covered. Something like this doesn’t have a lot of value, Reece explained, but it made a great impact among readers.

“It’s a sort of funnel idea where you do some fun stuff like that at the top of the funnel to get people to engage with your product, and then you hopefully pull the people with some interest through that funnel down to subscribers,” Reece said.

Shaun Fogarty

The web experience isn’t just about the content though; it includes ads, which can also be complicated. Shaun Fogarty, the Pilot’s general manager of digital advertising, shared that they use data and analytics throughout the sales process to make sure they are targeting the right audience for the advertiser and demonstrating the campaign’s performance by using key performance indicators.

“There is always a need to balance the needs of advertisers and readers,” he said. “When digital advertising is done well and the advertiser’s message is targeted to the right audience, I believe the information in the advertising message can be very valuable to the reader.”

Path to Subscription

In 2017, after participating in a Table Stakes program that focused on subscription acquisition, the Seattle Times decided to become a subscription-based company and build their analytics around that notion.

What the company does is track articles that lead readers to subscribe. Danny Gawlowski, assistant managing editor, explained whenever a new person subscribes, they look at all of the stories that that person read on their path to subscription and then all of those stories get credit. The newsroom has access to these metrics through a dashboard.

Danny Gawlowski

“What that helps us do is really move out a lot of the clutter from page views, from the traffic that’s national that doesn’t actually have a lot of impact for us, either for advertising or subscriptions,” Gawlowski said. “And it helps us really narrow into what our Seattle audience center—our most dedicated audience—cares about the most.”

The Times goes through this dashboard daily to discuss the metrics they are seeing. Executive editor Michele Matassa Flores said that those meetings have begun to shift more toward digital in recent years and they have also recently invited a couple of marketing employees to join them.

“I think reporters initially were very leery,” Matassa Flores said. “Before we created this dashboard, they watched other news organizations really turn more towards the clickbait kind of stuff and quotas, the number of stories written by reporters every day or week. I think our reporters were really fearful that we would succumb to those things.”

But since participating in the Table Stakes, Gawlowski said the newsroom has embraced data in a way that they hadn’t really done before.

“I think that the reason why is because when we look at the stories that do lead to subscription it’s aligned with our best journalism,” he said. “And I think that a lot of the reason why we questioned data in the past was because we weren’t really sure with page views; we would see a spike in page views and we couldn’t really explain it. And it wasn’t always our best work and it seemed clickbaity, and so I think that when we’ve aligned around subscriptions, it’s something that’s clearly helping the business, but also is ramping up our best journalism.”

Michele Matassa Flores

Furthermore, Matassa Flores explained to the newsroom that these numbers are not the end all be all, but should serve to inform and aid in making decisions.

The Times also learned a lot about their registration process. In addition to Table Stakes, the paper participated in the Facebook Accelerator program that also focused on subscriber acquisition. They found that the fewer fields to fill out for a digital subscription the better, whereas print still enjoys the traditional ways of signing up such as through kiosk sells.

Matassa Flores followed up the registration process with the experience of the digital customer. “We do hear from people about advertising sometimes being intrusive…or site speed every once in a while there’s a problematic ad or bug.”

She added, “I feel like we’ve been able to talk about that balance and recognize there’s always going to be some tension there. So we try to align with how many ads to have on a story page…or when it might be appropriate to remove some of those ads totally on a story, for example. So we have a give and take about it.”

Subscriber retention is also important for the Times.

“Frequency is really highly correlated with retention,” Gawlowski said. “So with our digital audience, what we’re trying to do is make sure that (they) get to a frequent enough of a basis that they subscribe, but then also maintaining and helping build that habit right away.”

Giving Consumers What They Want and How They Want It

The news media isn’t the only industry impacted by the changing habits of their customers. For a few bucks a month, consumers can have access to a number of shows and movies on platforms like Netflix and Hulu, whereas before, “Consumers went to the movies, rented VHS tapes or DVDs and watched whatever was on live TV. Now, consumers can stream content instantly to any device, anywhere,” Blake Morgan wrote in Forbes.

According to the February 2019 article, the number of consumers that have cut the cord in 2018 “increased by nearly 33 (percent) to 33 million people.”

Morgan explained that traditionally the company was a boost to existing shows that were still airing, drawing consumers in, but since Netflix began creating original content, it puts them in direct competition with traditional TV and movie theaters.

Similarly, the music industry has evolved to the point that consumers prefer streaming platforms. Before music streaming platforms, consumers could purchase an album or single digitally via platforms like iTunes, purchase physical copies or turn on the radio. Now, bundled up for the price of $9.99 (essentially one album), music lovers now have access to thousands of albums. According to a report in Hypebot, music streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal had more than 50 million subscribers in 2018.

As more readers turn to digital for news consumption, the question now seems to be: “Is it only a matter of time before print is no more and all journalism goes digital-only?” We’re already seeing the signs. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently announced it was eliminating more print days in order to become fully digital, and media analyst Ken Doctor predicted in a Nieman Lab article that the industry could see major cutbacks in daily delivery and printing of newspapers as soon as 2020.

“It is certainly a transition that many newspapers are beginning to make and that most are at least exploring,” API’s Sonderman said. “But the questions are complicated about when the right time to reduce print frequency is and which days to cut.”

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One thought on “As Readers Move More Toward Digital, How Are Newspapers Fulfilling Their Needs?

  • September 9, 2019 at 8:05 am
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    Wow, a lot of revisionist history here, at least concerning The Virginian-Pilot. The Pilot was faster out of the gate on digital than most other papers in the country. About a quarter-century ago, it partnered with two other companies to create Infinet, one of the first internet sites to help newbies (meaning almost everyone) find interesting stuff on the brand-new World Wide Web. From that point forward, a whole team at the Pilot devoted big chunks of their editing careers to trying to figure out the best path forward online. What’s more, the paper’s most innovative interactive experiments happened well over a decade ago. One example: a virtual tour of former Sen. John Warner’s office where you could click on memorabilia and works of art and and hear him tell the story behind them. It’s true that no regional paper in the country has figured out how to replace print revenue with digital revenue. But that doesn’t mean many of them haven’t been trying for a long, long time.

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