How the Journal Sentinel Mobilized its Reporters to Grow Subscriptions

I once asked Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, if he’s transparent with his staff. He said that, “when it comes to how the business is doing, yes. It creates accountability and keeps people on the same page.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently adopted that transparency—meaning they emphasized to the newsroom that growing their subscriber base is the responsibility of everyone—and put their journalists on the frontlines of social media, writing about their work, how they do it, and most importantly, asking for people to subscribe.
Sensing that their digital audience was bigger than their digital subscriber base, Rachel Piper, digital news director at the Journal Sentinel, said that leaders there “asked our individual journalists to be ambassadors for digital subscriptions on social media.” In an article on the site Better News—a project of the American Press Institute and the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative—Piper outlined how they significantly increased their subscriber base:
Empowered their journalists. “Over time, individual reporters have built a strong sense of ownership over digital subscriptions…” Piper wrote. “Advocating for the Journal Sentinel brand and asking people to subscribe no longer seems like the responsibility of someone else in a different department. And when these reporters ask their followers and fans to subscribe, it has a different power than our other asks and offers.”
Gave them specific—and easy—ways to help. The paper’s loyalty and engagement news director wrote Twitter threads and asked reporters to, at a minimum, retweet these. She also wrote tutorials for how to change email signatures to include a link to their subscription offer page.
Made sure it was always about the content. Consultant Jim Sinkinson has always preached that subscribers need to be reminded and led to the great content you do sometimes. This was kind of similar, just adding the push to subscribe. “When encouraging those in the newsroom to share subscription callouts, we’ve made sure to tie it to our journalists’ excellent, important work,” Piper wrote. “Rather than telling reporters just to hawk the cheapest deal, we’ve asked reporters to share journalism they are proud of…and note that people can ‘support work like this by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at'”
Here’s a typical tweet: “By the way, if you’re happy that the @journalsentinel has a reporter here covering this floor debate, another in the Senate, and two covering tonight’s State of the State, please subscribe!
Allowed the reporters to be more personal. They found that readers were interested in how reporters worked and wanted to know what stories they could look forward to. “Calls for subscriptions were key to these columns, but they were also a chance for us to be transparent about the work we do and for reporters to build their brands and connect with readers as individuals.” Some reporters even posted photos of their kids and pets.
Made it competitive. The Journal Sentinel actually runs subscription contests for their various newsrooms with prizes ranging from cash to ice cream socials. “…we stoked internal competition with updating tallies and pointed to successful efforts.”
It worked. Dozens of new subscriptions were tracked to individual pleas from reporters. They use URL codes to track the source of subscriptions. A big push during a contest typically brought in more than 100 subscriptions tracked to the newsroom. And in one contest that used promo codes for tracking, a photographer brought in 25—the most of anyone in Gannett.
Emphasized subscriptions over pageviews and created new measurements. Because pageviews are nice but subscriptions pay the bills, the Journal Sentinel kept that top of mind for the newsroom through celebrating milestones. “But we’re only now building measures like ‘associated new subscriptions’ into author-level analytic reports alongside pageviews.”
They asked for subscriptions. That’s okay. I always hark back to this one independent movie theater here which shocked people a few years ago when it announced that it was going out of business but never asked for help. They had hundreds of people show up at a farewell the next week—ready to contribute—but it was too late.
They included all their journalists. Who knows what segment of your audience may feel the most loyal? Some of their most successful subscription calls were from their sports reporters. As a former sports writer, I’m not surprised.

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