Here’s a counterintuitive strategy for news organizations attempting to develop digital subscriptions or paid memberships into a major source of revenue: Stop trying to monetize every single thing the newsroom does.
Maybe we haven’t yet grasped the full difference between paying for news online vs. purchasing the print edition of a newspaper. The early success of outliers such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal might be partly to blame. For almost everyone else, success with digital subscriptions or paid membership programs have been much more about getting readers to support the mission of what a news organization is doing, not making a transaction for goods and services rendered.
So what is your mission, and why should readers support it?
Is your goal to help the community you are covering, or to take as much from it as possible?
Are you covering that debate over affordable housing to help people make informed decisions about a topic that affects quality of life, or are you doing it because the controversy will generate eyeballs on page views you can sell advertising against?
As Heather Bryant, a John S. Knight fellow who has written extensively about how journalists write about poverty points out, are you writing for families struggling with addiction or to make ends meet, or are you writing about them?
Of course, it would be foolish not to use analytics tools to measure the digital reach and response generated by news articles. That information should inform how we package and present our journalism, and give us an idea about the types of stories that resonate with people.
But what is your business model?
If it’s digital advertising only, especially big traffic-reliant non-local, programmatic advertising, it’s likely that your website is clogged with popup ads and deceptive Taboola “related stories” advertising links. As Jim Brady, CEO of the Spirited Media local online news sites Billy Penn, The Incline and Denverite, says, “You’re trying to get every possible penny of revenue out of someone’s one-time visit to your site.”
A subscription or membership model, on the other hand, aims to monetize a reader’s “lifetime interaction” with your organization.
Lifetime interaction. What if we had that long-term a view of how we treat readers and communities?
We wouldn’t leave a paywall up as the public was searching for information about how to evacuate from wildfires.
We wouldn’t freak out if a tech-challenged reader thought a story was so important that they copied and pasted it onto their Facebook page. Or if people shared logins. Or if a video was spread on YouTube instead of our monetized on-site video player. Or if a pair of reporters put time into a popular podcast that doesn’t quite reach the critical mass to bring in advertising support. We’d stop being penny wise and pound foolish.
We’d use our reach and connections to people to do more crazy experiments in community engagement and problem solving—organizing a shovel brigade for senior citizens shut in by the snow or registering people to vote.
We’d collaborate with other news organizations if it helped our readers. We’d give up some of our power and control.
We’d listen without thinking about what we’re going to say next and how many page views we might get from saying it. We’d turn the microphone over to other people and amplify their voices.
There are no business metrics for being a mensch. But it’s at the heart of shifting from manufacturing and selling a physical mass media product, to serving a community of readers you hope will buy in and join the cause.
Matt DeRienzo is vice president of news and digital content for Hearst's newspapers and websites in Connecticut. He has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including serving as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers, a national nonprofit that supports the publishers of local independent online news organizations.