Audience Roundtable

Subscriber Innovation is the Path Forward


Recently, I was reminiscing about a question I heard years ago at an industry event by a media executive who was inquiring about how one would purchase a small or mid-sized newspaper. Media analyst and speaker Jim Chisholm said without hesitation, “Just buy a large metro newspaper and wait a few years.” He probably didn’t understand just how prophetic he was at the time. This moment has made me look back at the things we have done as an industry and realize in many well-intentioned cases, we have been our own worst enemy.

When it comes to the topic of audience, we must learn from the mistakes of the past so as to not repeat them. Yes, there were the downright bonehead moves, such as doubling subscription prices in a short 12-to 15-month period that obviously destroyed our audience base. There was also the locking down of websites without a real plan to reach and market to non-subscribers. But by in large, I believe most efforts—while maybe not the best ideas using hindsight—were done with thought, centered around facts, figures and logic.

Yet here we are, in 2021, a shell of what we once were, but with a resolve to rise like a phoenix from the ashes. In this month’s column, I will suggest a couple thoughts that might help us recapture the glory of yesteryear.

First of all, let’s move on from strictly locked-down or hard paywalls. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are in the commodity business. News and information are a commodity in the world of free cable TV, free radio and news stations, free social media and so forth. Sure, some say we pay for TV channels and cable, but I would assume those paying for these services aren’t paying for it because of the news, but for the wide variety of entertainment it provides. They may like the news as a free add-on, but wouldn’t pay much if it was a standalone product.

That said, I am not advocating we eliminate having customers pay for the news we provide, quite the contrary. I suggest we have a dual approach that captures a paid audience with the local content they can’t get anywhere else, but do it in a way that is attractive to a much wider and potentially revenue- producing audience. This can be a structure where non-subscribers receive limited content that constantly teases them, similar to the successful ESPN model which then entices them to pay for deeper content. Another way to monetize those not paying in a traditional sense is you might turn your platform into a high-powered data gathering operation, while building demographics and other information that is most valuable to your advertisers.

We must remember everyone in our market is a revenue opportunity, regardless of their subscription status. Our non-monetized universe is usually five-to-10 times larger than our monetized audience in most markets. So, how do we monetize a vast audience that doesn’t provide revenue to support journalism at this time? While I can think of dozens of ways, one that seems to make the most sense is to work with your advertising and marketing groups to capitalize on events and business needs. What does this mean? News media companies are in a very unique position, despite their decreasing print audience. Most have a wide audience when you factor in print, online, mobile, app, social and so forth. While many of those avenues produce little revenue right now, you can leverage this large group to your community. The news media company needs to be partnering, sponsoring and promoting dozens of local events. All ticketing to these events should run through your company by partnering with vendors such as Ticket Mambo who provide a great nothing-ventured, nothing-gained revenue share situation. The bottom line is you find ways to monetize your entire audience outside of the traditional audience revenue avenue.

Wayne Gretzky once said, “You don’t skate to where the puck is, you skate to where the puck will be.” There is so much wisdom in that simple statement. As an industry, we need to start taking the offense and not always be on the defensive, waiting to the next disruption to come along. We are doing better, no doubt. Just as the speed of technology, change and innovation are accelerating, we must also be accelerating our efforts, knowledge and understanding as well. While our industry has taken our share of blows, our younger generation is starting to flex their skills. I have no doubt we can turn this ship around and see a much brighter day as we move forward.

John Newby is the founder of the 360 Media Alliance. He also authors the weekly column, “Building Main Street, not Wall Street,” which focuses on bringing local media and their communities closer together through common synergies and causes to grow revenue. He can be reached at


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