Need to Know: November 12, 2020


You might have heard: Despite audiences overwhelmingly focusing on free coronavirus stories, publishers still saw a rise in subscriptions in the spring (Medill Local News Initiative)

But did you know: News publishers dial up the marketing heat on their subscription products (Digiday)

Armed with more data about what drives their readers to subscribe, and struggling to make up for deep advertising losses from earlier in the year, many publishers are promoting their subscriptions more aggressively as 2020 wears on, writes Max Willens. Research from paywall provider Piano has found that, among its publisher customers, the median percentage of site visitors who were shown a subscription offer was nearly three times higher in September than it was in March. The trend extends beyond Piano’s customer base, with publishers like Tribune, Gannett and the Dallas Morning News experimenting with different kinds of subscription offers while simultaneously tightening their paywalls.

+ Earlier: How to design a subscription offer page that doesn’t confuse customers or drive them away

+ Noted: Editor Gabriel Escobar promoted to Philadelphia Inquirer’s top newsroom job (Philadelphia Inquirer); The Kansas City Star to move from downtown building, shift printing operations (Kansas City Star)


How a COVID-19 timeline drove subscriptions for the San Antonio Express-News (Better News)

As the coronavirus took hold within its community, The San Antonio Express-News created a timeline to display updates including daily COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations, new or updated stay-home orders, and testing site information. The short blurbs contain the need-to-know information, while links lead back to longer, paywalled stories. “The COVID-19 timeline has driven more subscriptions in 2020 than any other single story on our website — 600-plus to date — by a large margin,” write Randi Stevenson, Joy-Marie Scott and Chris Quinn. This story is part of a series on Better News that showcases innovative and experimental ideas that emerge from Table Stakes, the newsroom training program; and shares replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole.


How a ‘news harvest’ works (Twitter, @thensim0nsaid)

Residents of communities with no reliable local news source tend to get their information piecemeal, from a variety of sources that may or may not be credible. The Bloomfield Information Project is experimenting with a solution to that problem, by identifying and monitoring civic news and information sources within a community, and then bringing that information directly to readers via email newsletter. It is also published (automatically, using Zapier) online and to Instagram and Twitter. The process helps overcome local news’ “last mile” problem, writes Simon Galperin, in which supply-chain inefficiencies disrupt access to a public good.

+ To print and laminate: 22 questions journalists can ask to increase understanding between polarized factions and help resolve conflict (Twitter, @soljourno)


Why South Africa’s Mail and Guardian distribution strategy is ‘WhatsApp-first’ (Twipe)

As an antidote to the rampant spread of misinformation on WhatsApp, the most widely-used social media platform in South Africa, the Mail and Guardian packages its weekly edition into a format that is easy to read and share on WhatsApp. The digital version is designed to look like a high-quality broadsheet, laid out on a PDF the size of a postcard, with articles trimmed down to about 250 words for an improved reading experience. Each edition is also accompanied by a quiz that allows readers to test their understanding of the week’s news, an element that has helped increase engagement with the product.


How do audiences view the boundaries between journalists and social media content creators? (RQ1)

Despite the internet blurring lines between journalism and opinion-based content, audiences still acknowledge distinctions between journalists who are influential on social media, and social media “influencers” whose content is not journalistic in nature. In a new study, participants said they expect journalists to be authoritative and objective — but they also largely held influencers to the same standards of authority and objectivity, registering concern that many market-driven creators had begun “posting incessantly, forsaking more substantive material to appease advertisers’ demands and try to capitalize on a relentless attention economy” — a complaint that has also been increasingly leveled at journalists in the digital era.


Now we need to rebuild local newsrooms (Columbia Journalism Review)

For years, journalists (and their audiences) have been adjusting to “decaying standards” as round after round of cutbacks have sapped the resources of local news outlets. Journalists need to call more attention to this problem, writes Lauren Harris. In the wake of the election and in the midst of the pandemic, it’s the perfect opportunity for journalists to craft specific appeals that underline the importance of local news to democracy. As an example, Harris points to research that showed that more than eight of 10 voters prize compromise and finding common ground. “Why not address this concern by highlighting studies that have shown a correlation between declining local news coverage and more partisan voting?” she suggests.

+ Earlier: How The Day used its free pandemic coverage to explain its financial challenges and ask for donations — and ended up raising more than $90,000 from community members (Better News)

+ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution puts its editorial claiming Republican Sens. Loeffler and Perdue “have assaulted Georgia’s election system” above the front-page banner with the label “Our Opinion,” which could confuse readers over whose opinion it is (Twitter, @BGrueskin)


A local reporter lost her job in Clayton County, Ga. — but she kept reporting the news. It paid off on election week. (The Washington Post)

After she was laid off from her local paper in April, Robin Kemp never missed a beat. She started her own nonprofit news site, the Clayton Crescent, and last week, as Joe Biden hovered on the precipice of overtaking President Trump in Georgia, Kemp was the only reporter to watch all 21 hours of Clayton County’s marathon tabulation of absentee votes, from about 9 a.m. Thursday to 5 a.m. Friday. As it turned out, the absentee ballots from Clayton County — the heart of the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis’s old district — helped push Biden into the lead. “That’s what’s always on my mind when I go and show up somewhere: It’s because someone needs to be there,” Kemp said. In the days that followed, Kemp’s fledgling news site has seen a flood of readers and donations — more than $10,000.