Impactful Ideas

The latest digital innovation trends for your newsroom

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I’m fortunate to write a monthly column about digital innovation across the news industry, but I’m constantly frustrated by my inability to keep up with everything cool that’s going on. I tend to focus the 1,000 words a month I’m given on the big news, the large transformations happening across our business. But I’ve done a poor job of sharing smaller, less sweeping ideas which are easier to enact and often more directly impactful.

So, this month, I thought I’d share some cool new features and thoughtful changes I came across in my digital travels in recent months that may just be what your newsroom is looking for.

Make It Easy to Attract New Readers
When it comes to innovation, the New York Times often leads the pack with simple yet effective crowd-pleasing features. I’ve turned countless wannabe chefs to the New York Times Cooking app because of one key feature: forcing your screen to remain open while you’re looking at a recipe. It’s the timesaver and stress reducer I didn’t even know I was looking for.

Recently, the Times rolled out a new feature for subscribers that’s equally simple and effective. If you’re a digital subscriber, you are permitted to share 10 “gift” stories that anyone can then read for free, regardless of their paywall status. That’s on top of the ability to share a bonus subscription to one or two people (depending on your own subscription plan).

Of course, the Times isn’t doing this for charity. The company has said 2020 was its biggest year for adding subscribers, and if it wants that pace to continue, finding new readers and hooking them into their products is key. Having current subscribers become evangelists for their products seems like a safe bet.

They certainly know what they’re doing. As of June, the newspaper counted more than 6.9 million subscribers for online news or its Cooking and Games apps. So, if you want to copy any news organization’s digital subscription strategy, copy the Times.

Focus on Retention
While most news organizations are justifiably focused on acquiring new readers and pushing them through the funnel towards a digital subscription, we hear less about ways to keep them around once they hand over their credit card number.

Ideally subscribers stay for the content, but we have to remember our digital news websites are both products and the home for our content. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to simply keep the subscribers you have than acquire new ones or win back the ones that have already left.

The Seattle Times, which launched its metered paywall back in March 2013, decided to focus as much on retention as they were on the acquisition of new readers. As outlined recently to the Lenfest Institute’s Better News, Curtis Huber, senior director of circulation and audience revenue, and Kati Erwert, senior vice president of product, marketing and public service, said the newspaper focused on three key areas and reduced unintentional subscribers churn below 10 percent, its lowest point in their history of digital subscriptions.

Among the changes they made were extending the grace period for nonpayment to 27 day and adding retry attempts on failed credit cards. The publication also turned to a user-messaging system that can remind a reader logged into the site that the credit card they have on file is about to expire.

“Talking about configuring your finance systems is about the least sexy topic related to the customer journey,” the pair wrote. “But focusing here provided really significant results in reducing our churn with minimal effort.”

Remind People How Much They Love Your Content
Going in the opposite direction, the Guardian continues to avoid turning to a paywall to fund its journalism, choosing instead to simply ask readers to donate.

The newspaper has always tinkered with its yellow-boxed pop-up messaging, but recently they’ve been wooing new subscribers and supporters by reminding them how often they read Guardian articles without even realizing it.

The other day, I opened an article and was greeted with a direct title that caught my attention: “You’ve read 27 articles last year.” The pitch was equally as effective, describing the Guardian as having “no shareholders or billionaire owner” and being committed to “keeping our reporting open for all readers.”

It’s obviously working. Since 2016, the newspaper has grown from 12,000 members to just above 900,000 digital subscribers, and regular contributors as of December, up from 632,000 the year before. Add in one-off contributions and the Guardian reports more than 1.5 million people supported their journalism in 2020. Not too shabby.  

Take a More Thoughtful Approach to Crime Stories
Thanks to a much-needed racial reckoning across the country, many newsrooms have moved away from publishing a once-popular journalism stable: the crime blotter, where all manner of suspected malfeasance was once dropped merely on the say-so of police officials.

The Associated Press gave the movement a much-needed push back in June when it announced it will no longer name suspects in brief stories about minor crimes. The justified fear is these stories can have huge ramifications on a person’s life thanks to the internet, where they live forever and are resurfaced by a simple Google search.

“The names of suspects are generally not newsworthy beyond their local communities,” the AP noted in a statement. “We also will stop publishing stories driven mainly by a particular embarrassing mugshot, nor will we publish such mugshots solely because of the appearance of the accused.”

Some news organizations—including the Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Cleveland Plain Dealer—have gone the added step of helping some readers expunge old, embarrassing stories from their archives on a case-by-case basis.

“This is really about examining (journalism) conventions, and seeing when they are just conventions that have been adopted without thought and are actually harmful, and when they are conveying relevant and useful information,” Susan Chira, editor of the Marshall Project, which covers the criminal justice system, told the Washington Post. “It’s a welcome reexamination.”

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 robtornoe@gmail.com.

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