Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

The 3 types of news subscribers: Why they pay and how to convert them

Introduction

Who pays for news? Why do they pay? Who does not pay for news and why not?

Earlier this year, we conducted a nationally representative survey to answer these fundamental questions facing the news industry.

In the second phase of the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, we set out to learn more about news subscribers and to build on the insights uncovered in the previous survey. Specifically, what can news organizations learn from deeper knowledge of the emotional and behavioral factors that affect people’s subscription decisions?

Using a Human-Centered Design (HCD) approach, which prioritizes deep listening as a way to empathize with users and uncover the values and motivations underlying their habits, we conducted in-depth, one-on-one interviews with 15 carefully selected people across the country who represent different extremes in news subscription behavior. They included a range, from those who have never paid for news to self-described “subscription junkies” who spend more than $100-a-month on news and specialty publications. The participants were diverse in race and age; we also selected for a mix of political leanings as well as people from rural, suburban and urban environments.

Most significant of the findings: We identified three news subscriber personas or “archetypes,” each with distinctly different mindsets about paying for news and information.

We have given each archetype a name and will go into more detail on each of them below. In brief:

  • Civically Committed support missions and initiatives that reflect their personal values and commit to a higher-than-average number of subscriptions.
  • Thrifty Transactors pay for practical value but are highly selective about which publications make the cut.
  • Elusive Engagers are generally subscription-averse and view news and information as a commodity that’s easily obtained for free.

The difference between these archetypes underscores that there is not one revenue strategy or funnel that can apply to an entire audience. Further, segmenting news subscribers by mindsets as opposed to (or in addition to) modes of consumption (print vs. digital) or by demographics presents publishers with a considerably different way of thinking about acquisition and monetization for each archetype.

There is not one revenue strategy or funnel that can apply to an entire audience.

Other notable insights related to how people think about news subscriptions, which may cross more than one of these three archetype groups:

  • The news subscription process is generally not a pleasant one. At best, subscribers say, it’s mildly annoying. At worst, it’s a frustrating, cumbersome and inefficient experience that has a lasting effect and can make many customers wary of future subscription commitments.
  • To attract subscribers in a noisy news landscape, news organizations must excel at a few key coverage areas instead of trying to cling to the notion of being equally comprehensive about everything–a publication of record. This is a finding that came out in our quantitative research and was strongly reinforced in our qualitative in-depth interviews.
  • Print/digital/audio usage is driven by circumstances, not just preferences. While some people may consider themselves to be primarily consumers of one method over another, they often consume news in different ways depending on where they are and what’s convenient. This is especially important for publishers to keep in mind when developing subscription offerings. Print, digital and audio are behaviors, not distinct audiences.
  • Audiences are extremely sensitive to perceived bias in news media since the 2016 election. Subscriptions are being purchased because of the political climate, but also sometimes canceled because readers think coverage is unfair, or in other cases not aggressive enough. This is something publishers need to talk about internally, think about in the way they present news and be open with their audiences. There is a lot of suspicion about the motives of publishers and journalists, even those who strive to be independent. Being more transparent about the journalistic process, as well as identifying and being blunt with yourself about unconscious newsroom biases, are both important issues to wrestle with.
  • The potential subscribers for local news are not just people who reside in the geography, but also anyone who has a meaningful present or past connection to the area. Community in a digital context means community of interest, not just geography, and some of those ties, such as to sports teams, colleges, past places people have lived, can be important parts of people’s lives in an era of mobility. These are important audiences to identify, understand and serve, and developing acquisition and subscriber strategies for these different audiences becomes an important new model as publishers move beyond advertising.

News subscriber archetypes

When it comes to paying for news and information, our research found that subscribers tend to fit one of three archetypes, each with different habits, attitudes and motivations toward subscriptions.

Note that these archetypes are based on behavior, attitudes and beliefs, not demographics. That means an individual person’s category will not change over time just because they get older. Though people may change if experiences or culture reshape their attitudes. Some news subscribers might fall somewhere between two archetypes, but an Elusive Engager is unlikely to “grow into” or convert to a Thrifty Transactor or a Civically Committed.

The insights identified below provide publishers with greater detail into the mindsets of these three archetypes.

The Civically Committed

At a glance

Willingness to pay: High

  • Views their support of journalism as a moral duty
  • Subscription decisions are more emotional than practical
  • Subscribes to a higher-than-average number of publications
  • Prioritizes organizations whose missions and values align with their own
  • High loyalty; likely to pay for subscriptions even if they aren’t using them
  • Low price sensitivity

How to spot the Civically Committed

  • Likely a news organization member, or donor
  • Subscribes and donates to multiple news sources
  • Likely donates to other causes and/or volunteers

“[Subscribing to news and donating to news organizations] makes me feel like at least I’m doing something, you know? The world would be a better place, the country would be a better place if people were well informed.”
—Connie, 60, Fairfax, Calif.

The Civically Committed have the highest degree of loyalty and the lowest price sensitivity, making them extremely valuable for news publishers. If they already subscribe to a publication, our research suggests they might be willing to pay more, particularly if they depend on or feel strongly about the news organization and its mission. Those who are not current subscribers would be high-value, sustainable audiences to engage.

The subscribers in this group view their support of journalistic organizations as a moral duty. Their decisions are more emotional than practical or product-based: Those who fall into this group tend to feel a meaningful connection to the news organizations they support.

The Civically Committed are well-read, socially aware and involved. They likely added new subscriptions and made conscious decisions to support specific organizations after the 2016 election. They value deep investigative and watchdog reporting.

“I would feel more uniformed and lost without [my news subscriptions],” says Emiliana, 46, an avid reader in suburban Detroit who subscribes and donates to almost a dozen news organizations. “Cost is really not a factor. We don’t have kids. We have a small house, and we make a decent amount of money, so I feel like we have the money to support things like that.”

The Civically Committed are well-read, socially aware and involved.

“I feel like I’m becoming a better person and making the world a better place,” she says of the news she consumes.

The Civically Committed subscribe to a higher-than-average number of publications and often will continue to pay for subscriptions out of principle, even if they aren’t using them.

Connie, a 60-year-old subscriber from Fairfax, Calif., gets three print local/regional papers, the New York Times (digitally), the Washington Post (digitally) and the New Yorker (print and digital). She also contributes financially to her local NPR station as well as the Center for Investigative Reporting, a national investigative reporting non-profit. Though Connie doesn’t always read the papers to which she subscribes, she says, “It’s important for us to have local news.”

The Civically Committed aren’t made up only of older subscribers, nor are they always high-income. The millennials among this archetype, in particular, are a segment publishers should prioritize.

Six years ago, at a time when she was recently out of college and newly working for a childhood education nonprofit, Megan, 28, of Seattle, became a sustaining member of her local NPR station, committing to have $100 deducted from her bank account each month.

She had been listening to the station during her commute for about nine months, she estimates. “It really became part of my daily routine. They were saying something about how, if this is something you rely upon, then you should support it. It was like, ‘Yeah, makes sense to me.’ So I called in. I had to wait in the parking lot while I was reading her my credit card number.”

For Megan, it wasn’t about the perks or gifts she received or even the “member” label.

“I just think it’s necessary,” she says. “I trust the NPR station. That’s something that just seems natural to pay for.”

As for how she arrived at her annual $1,200 contribution, Megan says she just went with one of the suggested amounts: “It’s probably worth more.”

I trust the NPR station. That’s something that just seems natural to pay for.

That’s not to say that those in this group are throwing money at every news organization and charitable cause that asks for it. Aside from feeling a connection, The Civically Committed also prioritize support for organizations whose values or initiatives match their own.

Connie, for example, felt compelled to send another check to CIR (the Center for Investigative Reporting), to which she had already donated, after she attended an in-person information session where CIR staffers talked in depth about the organization and its work. (There was no direct ask for financial support during the event, but Connie said she was cognizant that she likely was invited because she was a donor.)

“Having people in the organization show us in some detail what they do, how they choose stories to report on and ways in which they try to engage and educate a range of people and get information to a broader audience, was a good way to inspire us to donate again,” she said. “I could see that overall they are concerned with the same issues I am. So I thought, ‘OK, they’re worth supporting some more.’”

Events, indeed, should be considered part of a deepening of relationship particularly with the Civically Committed, not just a way to generate revenue directly through sponsorship or ticket sales.

Strategies and opportunities

Tout your mission, values and community role. The Civically Committed decide to support news organizations whose mission and values align with their own. They need to know your mission, see how important it is to you, and see how you live up to it. Just putting out good news content is not enough.

Partner with volunteer and civic-minded organizations and brands. These other mission-driven groups likely have attracted a lot of Civically Committed already, and by affiliating with those groups (like your local United Way, Red Cross, food banks, shelters, and many others) you can show that your news organization shares the same values. Sponsoring or organizing local festivals, fundraisers, or sports teams can also be great ways to show that you share the same commitment to improving the community.

Create opportunities for real relationships and interaction. The Civically Committed want to feel a sense of belonging and membership with the news organizations they support. It’s not just about the content. They want to meet you, engage with you, and with each other.

Reward them with appreciation and inclusion. The Civically Committed are investing in you — both financially and emotionally. They see their subscription as giving to a friend, so you should respond with a heartfelt thank you note. If you just send a receipt, or nothing at all, you are missing the emotional connection they are trying to make with you.

Allow people to pay more — “donate” to the cause. The Civically Committed want to support you, not just pay for access to content. Some of them may have enough wealth or motivation to give you more than just the cost of a normal subscription. If your normal subscription costs $10 a month, consider adding a “sustaining” level of contribution that is $100 a month and is defined as a different, more philanthropic relationship. A few people may take you up on it, and even those who don’t will see that as a sign this is a mission-driven organization worth paying something for.

Thrifty Transactors

At a glance

Willingness to pay: Moderate

  • Driven by combination of utility (news I can use) and relevance (reflects my sensibilities and interests)
  • Price sensitive; needs to feel their purchases are high value
  • Loyal to a small, highly curated number of publications
  • Has very specific reasons, uses and sometimes rituals for each of their subscriptions

How to spot Thrifty Transactors

  • Subscribes to at least one specialty publication or magazine related to specific hobbies or interests in which they are particularly invested and engaged (think fitness enthusiast, home cook, golfer)
  • Coupon clippers fall into this group
  • Might rely on a newspaper for its coverage of one topic (look for digital users with regular, high engagement in one area)

“I have a very small subscription list because I’ve realized through the years the things that I really use and the things that I really want.”

—Anne, 37, Chicago

As their name indicates, the Thrifty Transactors are practically minded. They have a highly curated number of publications to which they subscribe and are loyal. To win the business of this group, news and information sources need to reflect the sensibilities, interests and values of these readers and add direct value to their lives.

The Harvard Business Review meets all these requirements for Michael, a 27-year-old data analytics professional in Chicago who has subscribed to the magazine for three years. “It relates to my life. I like the people who write for it. It gives me life value.”

“One [article] was eight questions you should ask when you become a manager, he says. “ So, when new people come on, I use those eight questions. That’s already worth $30.”

This group’s value of relevance and utility also makes them more likely to subscribe to specialty publications and magazines that speak to their specific interests and sensibilities—in addition to Harvard Business Review, Cooking Light, Harper’s Magazine, The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Midwest Outdoor and Field and Stream were among other titles mentioned by interviewees.

Thrifty Transactors are practically minded. They have a highly curated number of publications to which they subscribe and are loyal.

Anne, a 37-year-old cooking aficionado and new mom, has subscribed to Cooking Light magazine since she was in her 20s. She still remembers the first Cooking Light recipe she ever made: “It was for white chicken chili. I was a senior in college and I had my first apartment and realized I didn’t want to eat junk food,” she says. “I didn’t want to eat processed food, so I made this and it changed my life.”

Fast forward more than 15 years: Though she’s a much more experienced cook now, the Chicago resident still relishes her Cooking Light, now one of just two food magazines to which she subscribes and for which she has a very specific ritual. “I’ll usually go through the whole thing in one sitting. Usually that first or second night [after it comes in the mail]. Then, they usually hang around for awhile. I’ll keep going back to them [to cook out of].”

If they aren’t already engaging with your product, this group might consider subscribing if a news outlet got better at covering a topic they deeply care about. Local coverage done well can also count as a highly relevant “specialty” with this archetype.

Dennis, a 32-year-old home contractor, lives in Reedsville, a small rural town between Manitowoc and Green Bay, Wis. Dennis subscribes to the daily e-edition of the Manitowoc paper. His family ties in Manitowoc make that paper feel more local and relevant to him than the paper in Green Bay: “A lot of my family, my nephews, their schools are in Manitowoc.”

“I go to the Herald Times because it literally has almost everything that goes on here,” he says. “My first priority [when it comes to news] is what’s here, because that’s where we are. National is second or third; [national news outlets] don’t really focus on anything around Wisconsin or the Midwest.”

For readers like Dennis who prioritize local news, however, it doesn’t go unnoticed when both the Manitowoc and Green Bay papers, owned by the same corporate parent, run the same story. Or when longtime journalists who are known in the community are replaced by unfamiliar bylines.

“Ever since they got bought out, you don’t know who some of these people are, the names, when you read it,” he says. It makes him question somewhat the reliability of the paper and how well the reporters know the community, though that has not yet affected his subscription.

Though [Thrify Transactors are] willing to pay, they can be price-sensitive, and it’s very important that they feel they’re getting a good value.

Thrifty Transactors are thoughtful about their purchases. Though this group is willing to pay, they can be price-sensitive, and it’s very important that they feel they’re getting a good value.

In addition to his local newspaper, Dennis also subscribes to Field and Stream and Midwest Outdoors, two monthly magazines for which he pays a higher yearly subscription than his local paper. But it’s worth the cost. “I can get information that’s good for me,” he says. “Like this one here will tell me what lure to use, maybe a good way to deer hunt, a good way to rabbit hunt. We get a lot of meat from hunting and fishing. So it’s a hobby for me, but it’s also providing.”

As much as she loves her Cooking Light subscription, Anne admits that it gave her pause recently, when the magazine tried to renew her for $35 a year, almost triple the promotional rate she had been paying in past years.

“In the great grand scheme of things, it’s not that expensive. I like it enough that I would stay with them, but [the magazine is] also chock full of fliers saying it’s $12 for new people. I might try to see if we can negotiate a better price.”

Strategies and opportunities

Provide excellence in key areas, not adequacy in all. The Thrifty Transactors are deciding whether your content stands out as high-value and unique. They need to see you as an indispensable source for certain things that really matter to them and help them live their lives. This requires a publisher’s investment and dedication to great content and engagement on those subjects.

Consider offering limited subscriptions to verticals. Building on the last point, some Thrifty Transactors may want to pay a smaller amount for just the kind of content they need. Only paying for what they use is part of their value calculation. If you can’t break out separate vertical subscriptions, at least consider indicating all the different “verticals” or specialty areas that customers get included with a normal subscription. Don’t assume people just know about all the stuff you cover.

Obtain lists of relevant magazine subscribers in your area. Once you have some areas of excellent coverage that are driving Thrifty Transactors to subscribe, see if there are any magazines or niche publications that also target those topics. You can strike a marketing partnership to promote your publication to their subscribers in your area.

Elusive Engagers

At a glance

Willingness to pay: Low

  • Driven by utility above all else
  • Views news and information as a “nice to have” or commodity
  • Wary of subscriptions; more comfortable with no-strings-attached transactions
  • Lower loyalty; those who are loyal are still reluctant to pay

How to spot Elusive Engagers

  • Might take advantage of free trials and promotions but quickly drop
  • More likely to prefer digital
  • More likely to arrive through search or social

“There’s almost a feeling that the news will always be there, and I’ll always be able to search or find enough information if I need it.”

—Johnny, 37, Fremont, Calif.

Many Elusive Engagers view news and information as a “nice to have” or a commodity that’s easily obtainable for free. They prioritize utility above other factors and care less about unnecessary extras and perks that might come with a particular paid service, such as access to premium features or entree into an exclusive community.

“There’s so much free information out there. I just have a hard time paying,” says Jake, a 35-year-old farmer from Monticello, IL. “If I search hard enough, I can find out what’s going on. It would just take more effort. I would probably miss out on some of it, but I’m fine with that.”

Importantly for publishers, loyalty to specific outlets and frequency of use among this group does not necessarily translate into a willingness to pay. Even those who say they value high-quality news and information have trouble overcoming the inertia of an abundant free information system.

Johnny, a 37-year-old stay-at-home dad from Fremont, Calif., describes himself as a “digital news junkie” — CNN and Gizmodo are two of his go-to online news destinations.

Loyalty to specific outlets and frequency of use among [Elusive Engagers] does not necessarily translate into a willingness to pay.

He also has been an “avid” listener of NPR since he was in college. He describes it as “an extremely valuable service” which he “loves” and listens to daily.

“I especially value NPR now when I think it’s important to have some neutral and unbiased reporting,” he says.

Yet, Johnny has never paid for any of the news sites he frequents nor has he made a financial contribution to his member station in 15 years of listening to public radio.

“I feel guilty that I haven’t [contributed to public radio],” he says. Johnny says he and his wife, who is a doctor, have discussed contributing, but they just haven’t gotten around to it. “It’s not a financial problem. If there isn’t something to make you realize that you have to seize upon it, then it’s just like, “OK, I’ll just wait until the next fundraiser. It’s not going away.”

When Elusive Engagers do pay for services, this group wants control over their purchases and are more comfortable with transactional, no-strings-attached relationships with service providers. They are wary of subscriptions or longer term commitments, preferring instead to make up-front, one-time payments.

As an example, Vivek, a 25-year-old engineer from Mountain View, Calif., will pay more to purchase a video game outright versus engaging in a video game subscription.

“I just prefer buying it up front and then just playing it and being done with it,” he says. “I’ve always shied away from subscribing to things, because I feel like it’s a big sink and you don’t realize it. And suddenly it all adds up.”

Johnny echoes the worry of feeling “on the hook” with subscriptions and donations. So it’s easier not to pay. “It’s almost a fear that once you give them your credit card that they’ll make it hard or stopping is going to be an issue. [With NPR, for instance], you imagine yourself talking to a real person, and then it feels harder to say you don’t want to renew,” he says. “We’ll just be locked into always contributing, so it really doesn’t feel like a small fee.”

Strategies and opportunities

Offer one-time-payment options with no commitment. The Elusive Engagers may spend a lot of time with you, but they avoid committing to recurring payments. If they can pay you for a week or a month, or for an article, they may be willing to contribute on that limited basis.

Make it easy to cancel, and emphasize that up front. It’s not that Elusive Engagers don’t want to pay at all, it’s just that they don’t want to be locked in. Emphasize that you can stop paying at any time, and you may win some of them over.

Monetize their loyalty in other ways. Elusive Engagers are not likely to subscribe, but they may still be a loyal and active audience you can get value from in other ways. You can serve them more ads and insist they turn off ad-blockers (because they do really want your content). You can register them so you can market other products and offers besides your news subscription (such as books, souvenirs, e-commerce, third-party paid promotions, etc.) to them on a one-time-payment basis. And you can get them to come to events that you monetize through tickets or sponsorships.

Other insights

In addition to the archetypes, we identified six other notable insights related to how people think about news subscriptions. These findings are themes that emerged across the archetypes. They indicate areas of opportunity and useful problems to solve, and they can help to inform product development and content, distribution, marketing and revenue strategies for publishers.

Subscription fatigue

Whether it was a free trial gone wrong, a difficult cancellation process or being inundated with unwanted correspondence, frustrating subscription experiences have a lasting effect and can make many customers — even current subscribers such as the Civically Committed—wary of future commitments because they feel overly obligated or “on the hook.”

“I prefer to make a donation, because you don’t get continual membership renewal things. They’re using all this paper and mailing instead of doing what I want them to do, why I supported them in the first place. That’s very maddening.”
— Connie, 60, Fairfax, Calif.

Opportunity: How might publishers create a subscription experience where news subscribers feel more in control of the relationship?

Strategies

  • Spell out exactly what subscribers are committing to (and not).
  • Offer pay-as-you-go models.
  • Audit all (email, online, mail, etc.) current subscription workflows to ensure clarity in the process and product offerings. Here is a Washington Post example.
  • Make it as easy as possible for customers to have questions answered. If they need to contact customer service it should be clear with an 800 number, email, live chat, etc.  Reps should be trained in both customer service and sales. The New York Times has an FAQ section at the bottom as well as a chat box that pops up after being idle on the page. The Boston Globe also has help center options on their page.
  • Account and email preference centers should be comprehensive, easy to locate and representative of brand. Here is Harvard Business Review’s. Here is another example from MECLABS, a research company.

Family first

For many, habits related to news and information, trust and loyalty to particular outlets begin at home at a young age. Though previous research has shown that friends and family members can influence subscription decisions to the same product, we underestimate what a powerful driver family traditions (and the emotional connection to those traditions) can be to subscriptions later in life. This is a particularly important leverage point as publishers look to grow subscriptions among new and younger readers.

“I grew up with NPR. My dad and I used to listen to it on the way to middle school every morning.”
—Megan, 28, Seattle (who now contributes $100 a month to her local NPR station)

Opportunity: How might publishers build creative subscription and marketing strategies around family traditions (think about the Subaru car commercials)?

Strategies

  • Test bundles and discounts for families that could include various formats. These include adding digital access to a print subscription or adding that each print subscription comes with a certain number of digital subscriptions.
  • Offer family discounts in which additional members of a family, beyond those granted digital access in one subscription, can begin to subscribe at a lower cost.  
  • Test messaging that underscores shared experiences where news/sports/arts/ has played a part in bringing family members around various topics and life events.  

How are you special?

In today’s crowded, noisy news landscape, consumers are searching for what stands out above the fray—context, depth of coverage, relevance and a publication’s unique approach to coverage were mentioned as differentiating factors that make publications “special.” For many, news coverage, particularly political coverage, feels the same. A big question that factors into subscription decisions is, “What can this publication give me that I can’t get anywhere else?”

“I just think Harper’s [Magazine] is very special. I think the Atlantic is not very special. It’s kind of in the bracket of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, etc. Most of the content coming out of those places are similar. Harper’s is on a whole other timeline and story view.”
—Ariel, 27, Oakland

Opportunity: How might your publication stand out in a bold way?

Strategies

  • Prioritize coverage around topics you can be excellent at that are passions for your audiences. Some newsrooms call these franchise topics and use them to build subject expertise where they can add depth and value. Here’s how one newsroom saw franchise content driving engagement and here’s how another planned to cover things differently based on audience passions.
  • As you begin to identify the franchises you want to build coverage around,use that as an opportunity to listen to what the community wants to learn or is already saying about those topics.
  • Once you have prioritized your coverage and made changes to the way you cover key franchise subject areas, market your areas of expertise and points of differentiation
  • Identify and surface attributes that make your publication unique and pull in through the messaging throughout the subscription workflow. An example from The Wall Street Journal. And one from the Washington Post. There is a popover ad that reinforces the value proposition with text “Award-winning content, top political coverage, best sports and local news.”

What’s local?

The audience for local news, especially in the digital realm, is much more complex than the geographic bounds by which many publishers define their coverage. What it comes down to is a consumer’s scope of relevance, and one person might have multiple “local” identities depending on where they live, work and play. Your local audience might also include news consumers who don’t live in the area but have some type of meaningful connection to it. In some places, “local” might mean the immediate town or neighborhood in which someone lives, but not other nearby areas.

“Most of the local TV news is done in Seattle. That doesn’t have anything to do with me here.”
—Gaii, 76, Burlington, Wa.

Opportunity: How might publishers rethink what local coverage means to their audiences?

Strategies

  • Find ways to identify former residents or those with strong ties who live elsewhere (think about high school and college graduates or sports fans who no longer live in the area).  
  • Pin your overall content strategy to themes that are more precise than just “local news.” Choose to celebrate the history, culture and uniqueness of your local area, in a way that people not living in the market will still connect to. Think about the aspects of your community that make people who have moved away remain attached, and obsess about those things in your coverage. One simple tactical step is to use your analytics to see what content is more popular among the readers who visit your site often but are not currently located in your market.
  • Ensure your coverage matches the ethnographic makeup of your communities. Start by studying the deep data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Fact-Finder. Examine your news organization’s demographic marketing and advertising data  Audiences want to see an accurate representation of their communities in your coverage. (Consider partnering with local ethnic media to broaden your reach into communities.)

‘Bias’ sensitivity

News audiences, regardless of political affiliation, are highly sensitive to and perceive a great deal of bias in the media, especially since the 2016 election. Many interviewees spoke about being upset about perceived bias, even if the bias reflected their own views. This is particularly important because it contradicts the assumption that most news consumers only want coverage that matches their views. One of the interviewees recently unsubscribed from her local newspaper because of its perceived bias.

“I used to have a lot more faith in the media until this last election. I’m not a Trump fan, whatsoever. But I feel like the media as a whole was definitely behind Hillary Clinton. I did lose some faith. It seems like it’s more one-sided now.”
— Jake, 35, fifth-generation farmer in Central Illinois who describes himself as Libertarian

Opportunity: How might publishers allow for more feedback from readers about how their coverage is perceived?

Strategies

  • In local publications, much of the content about national politics comes from syndicated wire services. The local journalists may feel less responsible for what their publication picks up from the Associated Press, Reuters or Washington Post News Service. But many readers don’t make that distinction. Be cognizant of any bias and tone issues in the wire copy you choose to associate with.
  • Explain and clearly label news versus opinion content. As we have previously detailed, “One possible explanation for declining trust in news organizations is blurry lines between news and opinion. If someone doesn’t like a commentator’s stance on particular issues, that could color how they look at everything else that news organization does.” Our earlier research shows that 32% of Americans find it difficult to distinguish news from opinion in the media. Here is more guidance and examples on how to label articles better.
  • Learn how to listen to your audiences. There are now numerous tools out there for this. You can do this informally on social networks. Create reader advisory panels to get regular feedback from your communities. Conduct audience research and hold focus groups. The Listening Post Collective has some strategies to help with hosting community conversations around difficult topics. The Coral Project offers guides for engaging with communities, including case studies from successful newsroom engagement projects. Hearken helps newsrooms include audiences in the reporting process, rather than ask for feedback after the fact.
  • The Trusting News Project, supported by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, and the Trust Project at Santa Clara University both help conduct experiments in newsrooms to increase trust in news and have released some results.  
  • Ask for specific feedback in a visible place in stories, in a social post, when meeting with a source, at an event, etc. Provide easy, clear ways to reach people in the newsroom who will respond to readers. And respond to constructive feedback to encourage additional people to continue the conversation.

Modes of consumption

Despite their described primary orientation (print or digital) most news consumers consume information through multiple modes, depending on their routine, lifestyle and moods. Audio, for example, is a growing mode of consumption for those who want to multitask, something to which publishers should pay close attention. Media consumption habits also can change based on life circumstances and sometimes goes against previously stated preferences.

“I was very against digital before, but when I was traveling back and forth between L.A. and Detroit, it was just so much easier to have all my books in one place. Now I’m pretty much everything online or on my iPad. I just don’t see the need for print any more.”
—Emiliana, 46, Detroit

Opportunity: How might publishers design digital experiences that take subscribers through the course of their day?

Strategies

  • Use data to identify stories that work in audio vs. visual vs. print. You can use that data to then have newsrooms build stories to fit the way audiences engage with them. API’s Metrics for News program can help publishers with this.
  • Understand what stories work best on different platforms or types of media. Some stories work best in Facebook, others on Twitter, others on Instagram.
  • Consider multiple audiences and experiment with how you serve them. What you offer a commuter might be different from a sports fan.
  • Use your data to see when you publish content and when people are accessing it. Reorganizing your newsroom or workflows can help you match up coverage to when audiences want it. BetterNews.org provides guidance on thinking about and using analytics to improve your journalism.
  • Experiment with different types of storytelling and use data to track their success. You might find different types of storytelling work better with specific audience segments and you can use this to create custom experiences. BetterNews.org offers resources on how to think about multiple story formats and specific case studies on how others have found success with alternative story forms.
  • Mobile first is a common strategy now. What would a mobile-only experience look like for your newsroom? Here’s an example from the Washington Post of mobile-first storytelling.

Methodology: HCD research

Ethnographic research, or the study of people in their culture, is the core part of human-centered design. Unlike market research or focus grouping, which use relatively targeted questions to gather opinions about a particular issue, this research (also referred to as human-centered or design research) seeks to learn deeply about our subjects and why they behave the way they do. We observe their physical environment and conduct in-depth interviews to learn about their habits and relationships, as a way to understand how they make decisions and uncover insights, opportunities and unmet needs.

This ethnographic research and the nationally representative survey we used for the first report are distinct methodological approaches that explore different elements of why people pay for news.

A nationally representative survey illustrates what portion of the population and various subgroups pay for news, and highlights many of the reasons people pay for news. The survey is designed to find broad trends and themes in the population.

In contrast, ethnographic interviews are conducted with people who are not representative of the entire population, but rather demonstrate extreme levels/degrees of a certain characteristic or behavior about which we seek to learn. The interviews help us better understand the key motivations behind these behaviors that occur across the broader population to varying degrees. The two methods are complementary, and the findings from each approach can be applied to understand better the results of the other approach.  

We used the survey research from the first report to identify the news consumer perspectives from which we wanted to learn and guide our recruitment process. The interviewee group was diverse in race and age; we also made sure they had different political leanings and came from a mix of rural, suburban and urban environments.

The interviews lasted about one hour. All were conducted in person, either at the user’s home or office to facilitate better collection of ethnographic information. Interviewees each received $100 for their participation.

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