Need to Know: May 8, 2019

Fresh useful insights for people advancing quality, innovative and sustainable journalism


You might have heard: Our study found that 74 percent of newspaper subscribers had engaged with the paper for at least a few months before making the decision to subscribe

But did you know:The common expectation that digital subscription rates will experience an initial spike and then plateau is wrong, as the pool of ‘loyal’ subscribers is changing (and growing) all the time (International News Media Association)

Most industry watchers guess new subscription offerings take off quickly in the initial stages, as all of the most loyal users sign up. After that excitement, though, they expect growth to level off and signing up additional users to be difficult. But that’s not how subscription growth actually works, writes Trevor Kaufman, CEO of Piano, a customer management software company that caters to media. “Publishers always ask what percentage of their unique users will convert to subscription. The problem is when it comes to subscriptions, the unique user number is almost totally irrelevant … it’s a bit like asking ‘If I open an Italian restaurant in New York, what percentage of New Yorkers will show up?’ One number is too big to be successfully correlated to the other. Rather than thinking a new offering will convert then subsequently run out of loyal users, publishers need to realise there are new loyal users for them to reach all the time.” Data from Piano shows that, far from plateauing, publishers get better and better at acquiring subscribers over time. Kaufman took a random sampling of Piano’s media customers and found that those with just a year of subscription offerings behind them experienced increases of up to 50 percent in their average number of new monthly subscribers. And for those with nine quarters behind them, growth rates reached more than 2000 percent on average.

+ Noted: Salt Lake Tribune seeks to become a nonprofit “community asset,” a first for a legacy newspaper (Salt Lake Tribune); Million-dollar payouts are common to news CEOs despite layoffs, cutbacks and stagnant salaries on the ground (Poynter); CBS names Norah O’Donnell as lead anchor, signaling a new era (New York Times)


Trust Tip: Address ‘fake news’ complaints (Trusting News)

We’ve probably all had “fake news” accusations levelled at us or our news organizations, writes Lynn Walsh, assistant director of Trusting News. And while we can’t control what anyone says about our work, we can control how we respond. This edition of the Trust Tips newsletter suggests ways of responding to “fake news” claims that may actually turn out beneficial for you, your news organization and your audience. Sign up for weekly Trust Tips here, and learn more about the Trusting News project — including how your newsroom can get free coaching — here.


Understand the topics that work best on different platforms (Axios)

When it comes to traffic referrals for media companies, certain topics and behaviors take off on some platforms but fall flat on others. Politics, for example, is no. 1 on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, while lifestyle, wellness and food tend to rise to the top of visual-heavy platforms like Instagram and Pinterest. Data from analytics companies like and NewsWhip suggest that platforms elevate content because of the native format and the reasons users are visiting, write Sara Fischer and Neal Rothschild. (They’ve included two handy charts showing how different topics resonate across the major platforms.) “Media companies are shifting from relying solely on Google and Facebook for news distribution to relying on other, more niche channels, including private networks. This shift incentivizes media companies to produce higher-quality content to be effective regardless of the platform, rather than create content to game algorithms.”

+ In a small but useful update, Twitter now allows users to add a photo, video or GIF to a retweet, instead of only text (TechCrunch)


Europe is reining in tech giants. But some say it’s going too far. (New York Times)

Heralded as the world’s toughest watchdog of Silicon Valley technology giants, Europe has clamped down on violent content, hate speech and misinformation online through a thicket of new laws and regulations over the past five years, writes Adam Satariano. Now there are questions about whether the region is going too far, with the rules leading to accusations of censorship and potentially providing cover to some governments to stifle dissent. With the growing body of European legislation, “there will be a lower standard for protection of freedom of expression,” said David Kaye, a University of California, Irvine, law professor whom the United Nations appointed to spotlight government efforts to restrict free speech. He added that Europe’s rules erode what had been a shared commitment among the United States and other Western democracies to avoid censoring internet content.

+ The front line of Mexican media is DIY community radio (Columbia Journalism Review)


3 simple habits to improve your critical thinking (Harvard Business Review)

Too many business leaders are simply not thinking through problems and opportunities, taking the time to evaluate them from all sides, writes Helen Lee Bouygues. Instead of jumping to the first conclusion when faced with a decision, leaders need to carve out time for critical thinking. Try to question assumptions around the issue (another way to think about this is to ask “What if?”). As possible solutions or courses of actions begin to take shape, check to see if they’re supported by evidence at every turn. And as you’re thinking through the decision, invite different people into the room with you — people whose background, experiences and perspectives are different from yours. In this setting, notes Bouygues, it can also be helpful to give people the chance to give their opinions independently without the influence of the group.

+ What Game of Thrones tells us about ourselves: A GoT research roundup (Journalist’s Resource)


Is nonstop news harming our democracy as well as our wellbeing? (The Guardian)

Our hyperconnectivity via social media means the news looms larger in our lives than ever before, writes Oliver Burkeman. For some of us, these constant encounters with the world of national politics and international crises can make it feel more important, even more truly real, than what’s happening in our families, neighborhoods and workplaces. “There are reasons to believe that a society in which so many people are so deeply invested in the emotional dramas of the news is far from the embodiment of an ideal democracy — that, on the contrary, this level of personal engagement with news is a symptom of the damage that has been done to our public life,” writes Burkeman. “This raises a possibility alien to news addicts, committed political activists and journalists alike: that we might owe it not only to our sanity, but also to the world at large, to find a way to put the news back in its place.”  


Why Richland Source built a system for automating high school sports articles (Nieman Lab)

Sharing a coworking space with artificial intelligence company Abundat led to a serendipitous opportunity for Richland Source, a digital news outlet in Mansfield, Ohio. The two groups paired up to build Lede AI, a sportswriting automation tool that, in its beta phase, published over 20,000 articles with zero inaccuracies for Richland Source and seven partner newsrooms. Now Richland Source envisions building out the software as a new revenue source, similar to The Washington Post’s Arc Publishing platform, which the Post licenses to other news organizations. “We know we built a tool we needed,” said Jay Allred, Richland Source’s president. “Once we figured out how the tool worked, we thought maybe another local newsroom might like this tool, too.”

+ Facebook took down 2.8 billion fake accounts between between October 2017 and November 2018, not counting real accounts that are sharing fake news, intentionally spreading disinformation or promoting hate speech (The Guardian); On the flip side, how robots are trying to hold President Trump accountable during his live speeches (The Atlantic)