It turns out one way to keep subscribers from abandoning your newspaper is to give them free puzzles.
Out on Long Island, Newsday has been printing a puzzle book called Brain Benders Monthly since 2016, filled to the brim with crosswords, sudoku, jumbles, and kids pages—basically everything readers need right now to help pass the time and distract them from the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.
Newsday certainly isn’t unique in attempting to break out its puzzle offerings into a unique product. But while many news organizations have leaned on similar offering to squeeze out more revenue from loyal print subscribers, Newsday gives its subscribers the option of receiving Brain Benders for free.
No catch. No fine print. No “your credit card will be charged later” switcheroo. Free.
The way it works is if you’re a Newsday print subscriber, you can opt-in to the monthly puzzle book at no additional cost. There’s no other way to get it—you can’t subscribe to it on its own, or purchase it at an added cost. Not surprisingly, it has garnered a great deal of loyalty among readers to the news organization.
Patrick Tornabene, Newsday’s chief consumer revenue and strategy officer, said about 53,000 readers have chosen to receive Brain Benders each month. It’s one of several “no fee opt ins” the newspaper offers print subscribers—others include classic Newsday editions from the past, a history series called “Long Island: Our Story” that publishes every two months, and a quarterly food magazine. Recently, Newsday went the public radio approach and began offering print subscribers a tote bag.
“Our consumer model is based on customer lifetime value, that we’re understanding each individual subscriber’s engagement with our various products,” Tornabene said, noting the approach bypasses short-term money grabs in favor of increasing retention and limiting churn. “So, we offer all these products to increase the value,” he added.
That equates to shedding less print subscribers than peer newspapers. Tornabene said looking back at Alliance for Audited Media circulation numbers the past three years, Newsday had among the lowest loss of print subscribers in the county, coming close to the Seattle Times.
“Increasing value through these products has definitely helped tremendously,” Tornabene said, who described their approach not as data driven, but “data informed” to determine what products they should be offering subscribers.
Take Newsday’s e-newspaper, which has an easy-to-use interface and is readily available on each of the news organization’s platforms, including inside their web app. Instead of breaking it out as a unique product and selling it as a separate subscription, it’s more valuable to Newsday as a free option exclusive to current subscribers.
In the near-term, the e-newspaper is yet another benefit that adds value to being a Newsday subscriber. Long-term, it’s positioned as a digital gateway to legacy print subscribers, if and when Newsday begins to cut back the number of print editions per week.
Not surprisingly, they’ve taken a similar consumer-orientated approach with their digital subscribers, hosting virtual events that really began to take off in popularity once the coronavirus pandemic hit the New York metropolitan area.
Tornabene said the newspaper has hosted more than 100 virtual events since March, which have garnered more than 120,000 individual registrations—names and email addresses that are more likely to sign up for a newsletter and eventually purchase a subscription. The online events also rate high on something called the Net Promoter Score, a measure Newsday’s analytics team uses to determine if someone in the community will recommend one of their products or experiences.
Unlike other metro newspapers, Newsday didn’t really begin its digital subscriber business until January 2019 (prior to that, the owner also owned a local television company called Cablevision, who had complete access to digital content). Newsday’s paywall generally kicks in after two stories, but it offers coronavirus content for free with a hook—an easy to close window asking readers to subscribe to support their journalism.
So far, the ask has paid off. Tornabene said digital subscriptions are up 75 percent compared to last year, and earlier on in the pandemic, nearly 25 percent of all new digital subscriptions came from the company’s “soft gate” on coronavirus content. As of this writing, Newsday has more than 31,000 digital-only subscriptions, no small feat considering the intense competition in and around New York City.
Subscribers are added to a database that tracks multiple engagement data points, including things like time spent on the website or the number of complaints into the company’s call center. Newsday use the data to assign each reader a score to determine if they’re considering canceling their digital subscriptions.
“Every subscriber every week is scored on their likelihood of cancellation. So, if we see that score move, we intervene and try to retain them,” Tornabene said. “There are many variables that go into those models, and they’re all based on engagement.”
When scores begin to dip, Newsday jumps in with “unanticipated appreciations,” letters and gifts it sends readers in hopes of building loyalty with the brand and ultimately retaining them as a subscriber. Tornabene said they send a fair amount of thank you notes to subscribers at an opportune time, and they also do “surprise and delight items,” such as mugs or umbrellas.
Newsday recently finished building an in-house television studio and a state-of-the-art live streaming theater at their company headquarters, which Tornabene said will build on the value of a subscription.
“It’s a consumer view to the business, not a product view. That’s how we manage the business,” he said. “We have product management, and a lot of metrics around that, but the monetization and the value we bring to the subscriber comes from their lens.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.