Need to Know: December 17, 2020


You might have heard: COVID-19 is accelerating local news outlets’ shift from print to digital (Medill Local News Initiative)

But did you know: Local news outlets boost digital subscriptions by about 50% in a year (Medill Local News Initiative)

A new study from Mather Economics found that digital subscriptions at local news outlets across North America increased by 51.2% in 2020, a year stacked with major news events. Mather also found that 25.6% of all subscription starts in 2020 were digital. The largest U.S. local news chain, Gannett, saw digital subscriptions increase by 31.1% by the third quarter of 2020, while Tribune Publishing experienced a jump of 36%. The Los Angeles Times saw a surge of 52.8% in 11 months. “One key question is whether 2020 has been a trend-setting year or an aberration,” writes Mark Jacob. And — whether local news outlets can manage to hang on to those new subscribers. Mather also found that subscriber retention increased slightly in 2020. Also, more news organizations are beginning to dedicate full-time staff to retention.

+ Related: Current attention levels to local news are at a three-year low after peaking during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic (Knight Foundation)

+ Noted: Facebook reverses election-motivated algorithm changes that had boosted news from authoritative sources like CNN, NPR and The New York Times over partisan sites like Breitbart and Occupy Democrats (New York Times); Applications are open for NPR’s Story Lab Workshop, which offers mentoring, training and partnership opportunities for NPR Member stations, independent producers and NPR staff (NPR); Twitter announced that it will cease prompting users to quote tweet, allowing the standard retweet once again (Mashable)


We want news organizations to be better at customer service — send us your suggestions

News organizations these days talk a lot about audience engagement, but may forget that much of that engagement doesn’t happen with the newsroom. It happens with the customer service team — the staffers who field phone calls and emails about subscriptions, cancellations, missing newspapers and more. So what can news organizations do to make customer service less of an afterthought and better engage the people who care enough to contact them? We’re really asking you — API is gathering solutions to common challenges on this front, with the goal of publishing a resource for news organizations in early 2021. Please send examples, suggestions or thoughts to API’s editorial manager, Stephanie Castellano.

+ Today at 2 p.m. ET, API’s Trusted Elections Network will host a discussion with several of its grantees — including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Detroit Free Press, Enlace Latino NC and the Colorado Sun — on how they pulled off innovative, voter-centered election coverage in the midst of this chaotic year. Register to attend here.


Make it very, very easy for people to subscribe — or they won’t (Twitter, @austin_rief)

To get to its first 10,000 subscribers, founders of the popular business newsletter Morning Brew had to learn the hard way that people … are lazy. Standing in front of their peers in business classes at the University of Michigan, Austin Rief and Alex Lieberman described their newsletter and asked people to go subscribe. They had few takers. “No one wanted to sign up themselves. But, no one had a problem writing their email on a piece of paper if put in front of them,” wrote Rief. So Rief and Lieberman sat outside the lecture halls after making their pitch and manually signed people up for their newsletter. They then sent ambassadors out to use that same approach to campuses around the country. “Sometimes you have to handhold people throughout a process,” wrote Rief. “A ‘conversion’ may seem so simple … but is actually too much to ask when no one knows who you are.”


How Hungarian platform turned its podcast series into interactive live events (Engaged Journalism Accelerator)

Seeking to engage audiences who don’t normally tune into economic news, independent online news site began experimenting with live podcast events (before the coronavirus pandemic). The events, which featured an expert speaking about economic and business news unfolding in Hungary, allowed to speak face-to-face with audience members and hear their questions and concerns. Hosting the events on college campuses meant they often attracted students who hadn’t previously used their journalism, but their most successful events were hosted in smaller, intimate venues like cafes.

+ Spotify inks deal to stream NPR podcasts worldwide (Variety)


News publishers are eagerly bundling their subscriptions with brands (Digiday)

Publishers like Business Insider, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal are partnering with non-publisher brands to tap into their customer base. Business Insider, for example, partnered with American Express to offer card holders free six- or 12-month trials to the digital publication, hoping that this would attract small to mid-sized business owners. The Washington Post has been exploring subscription bundles with organizations in the education, finance and healthcare industries — “Any of the areas where people are seeking info beyond what the provider of that service can give to them,” said chief marketing officer Miki King.

+ Related: For media brands, wine clubs keep the revenue flowing (Nieman Lab)


Defund the crime beat (Nieman Lab)

That is, the crime beat as it currently is at most local news outlets. “Let’s be honest: Crime coverage is terrible. It’s racist, classist, fear-based clickbait masking as journalism,” write Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli. Studies have shown that local crime coverage relies too much on information from law enforcement, and makes people feel less safe than they really are. News outlets have recently taken steps to improve crime coverage, from avoiding the use of mugshots to creating an appeal process for people to have stories about them removed from news websites. But those steps are “low-hanging fruit,” write Chappell and Rispoli — what really needs to happen is a complete overhaul of the crime beat.


From direct-to-consumer to direct-to-believers (Splice Media)

News organizations need to put more effort into identifying and learning about their “true believers” — the people who have had your website open in a browser for months, who show up to your events, whose newsletter open rate is hovering at 84%. And learning about them means having actual conversations with them, writes Rishad Patel — and not “just conversations about what she thinks about your podcast — these are conversations about who she is. What does she do for work? What problems does she live with? What does she do when she’s bored?” Those conversations will likely yield some very important realizations, predicts Patel — like which forms of media are your true competition, and that you probably don’t need to be publishing 25 stories a day.