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‘Share Journalism [You’re] Proud of’; How the Journal Sentinel Mobilized its Reporters to Grow Subscriptions

I once asked Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, a division of the Financial Times, 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.”

Mike Grebb, publisher of Cablefax Group, an Access Intelligence division, also once touched on that idea of the benefits of staff knowing more about their company’s inner workings.

“What’s made it better for us is the [open] way it’s done across the company,” he said. “You get the sense that editors are generally well-versed in the financial part of the business. We try to keep everyone abreast, not segmented off. I’ve worked at other companies—I came from the editorial side. As a straight editor or reporter, I never knew what was going on or how revenue was generated.

“[Here] I run a weekly meeting and bring the entire staff in—ad sales, subscriptions, marketing, events and awards as well as editors. We share as much information as we can every single week. We don’t get too much in the weeds on revenue; it’s more, ‘How’s that conference doing?’ ‘How’s the next awards program doing with nominations?’ Editors are constantly aware which are doing well and which aren’t.”

Grebb added that “generally, that sort of knowledge, even though it’s not directly part of their job, is good knowledge to have because I think they just have a better understanding of what the business is—say the necessity of working with sponsors. And they have to be part of the fold if it’s an event.”

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 is similar to that 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 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 page views and created new measurements. Because page views 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 page views.”

They asked for subscriptions, and 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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‘Insights Were Phenomenal’; Audience Conversations Fuel Agenda’s Growth

Let’s say you run an enterprise subscription-based publication for corporate board directors and have seen two years of declining traffic (2016-2017). You’re an accomplished journalist—like Melissa Anderson, managing editor of Money-Media’s Agenda—so you think sensibly. “Maybe if we position ourselves as covering the news of the day, as it pertains to corporate boards or a corporate governance angle. Yes, that’s what we need to do.” She paused. “But it really wasn’t working.”

Anderson recounted this in her excellent, there’s-a-moral-to-this-story section of a recent webinar hosted by our AM&P Network—titled The New Content Metrics: How Publishers Are Measuring Engagement and Using That to Grow.

In September 2018, Money-Media managing director Dan Fink launched a growth plan with several prongs for all divisions, including marketing, sales, operations and tech. “But I can only speak to the editorial ones that I was involved with,” Anderson said, “which were to perform a traffic and audience engagement analysis. And what we found doing these things was that we were on the wrong path—which is why I titled this presentation, Talk to Your Audience.”

Because Agenda, which also prints and mails twice weekly, only sells enterprise subscriptions, you’re not going to read it through search engines or on social media. It has to come to your inbox or mailbox. “That drives the need for us to tend to our audience really carefully, as a community almost,” Anderson said. “Because the same 12-15 people on each license who are reading Agenda are the ones who are going to vote up and down each year if they want to renew the subscription.”

The first problem she found was a biggie. “If we had a company’s name in the headline for a story, people didn’t read it. They weren’t as interested if they knew who the story was about which suggested that we were we were on the wrong path [with] that kind of this news-of-the-day sort of approach.”

(Interestingly, the next speaker, Davide Savenije, editor in chief at Industry Dive, said that seeing company names brings a completely opposite response for their audience. But that only underlined the moral here, that talking to your audience—not reading what specifically worked for Money-Media—is the elixir of choice. I’ll be reporting soon on Savenije’s also-superb presentation.)

“But that didn’t tell us the whole story,” Anderson continued. “So beginning in January 2019, we launched this audience engagement analysis. We basically emailed a bunch of prospective readers as well as a large chunk of our readership. I ended up doing extensive one-on-one conversations with more than 40 corporate board directors and about a dozen other executives who were in our audience, like corporate secretaries, chief legal officers, people like that who could be reading Agenda, even if they weren’t a director. These conversations took about an hour each. They were very lengthy and detailed, and people were really excited to share what they liked about publication, what they thought we could do better and how they use it. It was a really great exercise, and the insights were just phenomenal. We built them into how we cover corporate boards, our news for our readers and build out our audience. And it’s really been successful.”

That assessment speaks highly of Fink for giving the time for that process to play out, and, of course, to Anderson, for engaging and listening—such a time-honored but often under-appreciated skill—and not rushing through that.

“What we found was that our audience reads Agenda for the analysis,” Anderson said. “They print out—I heard over and over again—‘I love to print out your issue and take it into the boardroom.’ They mark it up, they talk about what they want to do and don’t want to do—things they think are good ideas or bad ideas about how they want to run their own companies. So that’s what we found.”

And the results?

“In 2018 we began implementing what we found from the traffic analysis, and we saw a 15% lift in traffic in that first year and then we continued to see traffic increase over the next three years by positioning ourselves as a resource for our audience,” Anderson said.

That included a pandemic-related, pop-up newsletter that ran for about nine weeks around the beginning of the crisis last year. “We had extremely high engagement from that,” Anderson said, “contributing to the new sales, and it also led to something really interesting and I was excited to see: a double, year-over-year rate for forwards and sales for a newsletter.

“Our readers really aren’t on social media; they’re not sharing these things with their network that way. But they largely are forwarding them and that rate had been pretty stable for the past few years, and this year it skyrocketed… which shows us that people are really finding a lot of value in the content that we’re producing about how to solve problems and how they can take these into their communities. That was really exciting for us.”

What’s next on the agenda for Agenda? “We’ve been piloting an influencer program where we’ve heard again and again from people in the consulting space that they wish they could get our publication, but since they’re not a corporate board they can’t,” Anderson said. “We’ve experimented with providing a few comp accounts to those people [who] we want to be sharing our stories with their clients, and that’s been really successful. We have seen those come up through influential people who want to be sharing our pub.

The most exciting thing, she added, was that the tech team at Money-Media has been hard at work on building an entire new “stats platform that’s going to include metrics like scroll depth and time on page to produce this view into how in-depth our readers are looking at our stories, which again is another view on that value beyond just click-throughs.”

We’ll definitely stay tuned for that.

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‘Give Them Quick Wins’; Offer Breadth, Personalize and Simplify to Onboard Well

Onboarding can entail making sure your new customer/subscriber has the logins and passwords that she or he needs. Or it can be explaining where everything lives on your site and how it can be accessed. Or it can just be about establishing a personal connection. One thing is for sure though, onboarding has become even more important now, when our virtual patience may be on the thin side.

“You have to remind people why they bought [the subscription] to begin with. Restate your value proposition—99% of the renewal decision is based on engagement of that user.” Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, was speaking about renewals when he told us that last year. But there’s no doubt that successful onboarding leads to successful renewals.

“New customers—especially trials—forget why they subscribed,” Jim Sinkinson of Fired Up Marketing said. “Don’t let them forget. Tantalize them with the valuable information they will be receiving. Onboarding materials should address three things: Motivation, method and making them heroes—give them quick wins.”

Here are onboarding lessons from the publishing world that I’ve come across.

Make user log-ins a flawless process. “Our survey resulted in multiple concerns about user log-ins and passwords to the websites,” Joe May, marketing director of Pro Farmer, once told us. “So what we did was proactively remind our users the basics—how to reset their password; how to set their browser to remember their credentials so they don’t have to enter it every single time. That’s a simple action that we probably all take for granted…” Echoed Fink: “It’s critical to onboard new subscribers successfully. Make sure they can easily log in. And if they haven’t accessed anything or they’re not receiving your news alerts, you’ve got a problem.”

Be more personalized. Schibsted, a large media site in Norway and Sweden, created a “newsroom onboarding guide to welcome subscribers in a more personalized way. Now new subscribers can choose one of their renowned editors or journalists as a guide through the onboarding period. These personalized onboarding emails have a higher unique opening rate: 63% versus 38% for the standard onboarding process. The retention rate after the first renewal is also five percentage points higher,” reports Twipe.

Reach out and be in touch. “We don’t think of onboarding as a discrete activity,” Aaron Steinberg, chief growth officer at insideARM, said once. “It’s the beginning of our ongoing member service and engagement. We want to be in touch with our customers all the time, and we do a good job of that.” He spoke about the importance of design in the customer service chain. “Our materials are good, our onboarding is good, but in the middle there was a design” on the website that needed to be clearer. That changed, thanks to that good customer communication.

Show and tell. In the personalized onboarding webinars that Lia Zegeye, senior director of membership at the American Bus Association, conducts, she “shows a short promotional video from ABA’s tradeshow, providing a testimonial about the value of the event. Zegeye said she often gets thank-you notes from those webinar attendees who say, “Wow, I had no idea you guys did all of these things!” “It’s a great way for me to connect with our members,” she added. The webinars immediately put a face with a name, and members are more likely to reach out to her directly with questions. The International Coach Federation also puts on a live webinar for onboarding and has found that this type of early engagement boosts first-year retention.

Provide the breadth of what you do. Especially during the pandemic, customers/subscribers/members may have come to you for one special thing, be that COVID coverage, ways to move forward or how others are dealing with this crisis. So it’s important that during onboarding you expose them to everything else that you do. “If you are one of the almost a million people who subscribed to our COVID-19 email newsletter, what are the other newsletters that may be valuable to you?” asked Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives for The Washington Post, early on in the pandemic. “What kinds of coverage did you click through from the email newsletter and how can we use those interactions with our site or native apps to get you to stay?”

And by exposing them to everything you do, you can get preferences to build on. From a data perspective, “this [opening 30-day] period is also crucial for us to gather patterns of user behavior,” said Katrina Bolak, manager, customer onboarding and engagement, for The Globe and Mail in Toronto. “We need 30 days of data to accurately serve up future content based on interests and for our email segmentation.” After that, content consumption patterns begin to form—good and bad.” So initial engagement has to be high.

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Triple Down on Data, Expand Your Digital, Change Your Culture; Use This Time to Reset and Grow, Kueng Says

“It did take time to get the approval to get a new website. We had focus groups and a wide variety of perspectives. But I’m so glad MOAA did it.” said Yumi Belanga (pictured), senior director, digital programs, office of the CIO, Military Officers Association, in an excellent session with Mark DeVito, president, Beyond Definition, titled The 2020 Association Brand Experience at AMP 2020 last fall.

We started to understand our members more and how important data is in making these decisions. ‘Do we have data to probe that will be beneficial?’… We also learned a lot more about what everyone’s individual goal was. Sometimes we don’t listen. Listening and not just hearing gets to true collaboration. Step outside yourself to put yourself in their shoes.”

Belanga’s comments evoke one of the priorities—to triple down on data—of a terrific ebook published last year by Lucy Kueng, an internationally renowned expert on digital disruption, titled Transformation Manifesto: 9 Priorities for Now. It delves into how publications professionals can change for the better in the aftermath of the pandemic. She wants us to “seize the opportunities presented by the undeniable crisis we face, because those opportunities are truly huge.”

About data, she writes: “You can’t move from want to need on guesswork. You can only shift… by diving deeply into understanding customers and how you can become more important to them… Triple down on data, not just on the volume flowing into the organization but on the caliber of discussions around that data, on the insights derived from it, the hypotheses you develop and test.”

Let’s look at five more of these priorities, with some AMPlification.

1. Growth will be all about digital. “Organizations that have procrastinated on digital are in a tough place,” writes Kueng. “Their transformation runway is suddenly much shorter. They need to pull off a fast pivot—to traverse what disruption specialists call the ‘valley of death’ where [organizations] that fail to reinvent themselves for a digital world get consigned to a slow death—without the substantial legacy revenues that early movers have used to finance this transition. These ‘digital laggards’ are the ones in survival mode, facing difficult decisions.”

I was speaking this week with Lilia LaGesse, an association publishing strategist and frequent speaker for AM&P. Her exceptional presentation at a Lunch & Learn last year highlighted the three main ways that a magazine can be digital: a page-turner, web-based and immersive. She said that while the page-turner can look pretty cool and maintain existing print production process, its user experience, single level of engagement and sharability are much less than the immersive model. As Keung writes, now is a great time to play digital catch-up. Expand your presence. “Find out where your audiences are in the social media eco-system and get your content out to them there.”

2. Seize the moment to do clean-up work that’s overdue. In the same way we have been cleaning out our homes, Kueng wants us to do that with our business—and stop doing things that aren’t successful. “We have been very good at starting things but terrible at stopping them,” she writes. Look at your legacy products. Are they “hangovers from a previous era but still resourced at glory day levels”? She also wants us to pivot in the way we do age-old processes. “Remote working clearly offers opportunities to rebalance fixed costs.”

“I think what happens a lot is that you say these things are important, but you aren’t really following it in leadership with your actions,” said Anita Zielina, director of news innovation and leadership at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. “Then you have to really be willing to invest or shift money into building a product team. So it’s really kind of a transformation process than anything else, unless you’re building as a start-up. Of this means you ask yourself, ‘What can I stop doing to shift those resources into something else?’”

3. Your culture is unfrozen. There will never be a better time to change it. “Culture is incredibly efficient—it works as an internal protocol that silently influences actions and decisions,” Kueng writes. “Ensure digital voices (often younger and more diverse) have equivalent ‘voice time’ and that they are heard first… The pandemic has broken cultural inertia. Habits have been unbroken. People are expecting things to be different. This is really rare. Now is the time to make your culture into what you want it to be. The trick is to layer culture change objectives into everything else you are doing,”

This will take direct involvement from all staff, especially leaders. At AM&P 2020, keynote speaker Leslie Mac told a great story about a university where she helped conduct some diversity workshops. The heads of the department told her, “We want to spend time with you.” And she said, “That’s great, we’re all going to the workshop.” That was not in the department heads’ plans. “I stopped them,” she said. “’You have to come to the workshop, too.’ They looked at me with [deer-in-the-headlights] eyes. ‘There’s no way unless you come. You need to be there, you need to participate.’ They were really afraid of saying the wrong thing, of being uncomfortable. They came up to me after: ‘I never had this kind of conversation with staff and graduate students. The walls came down. Thank you.’ We can’t silo this kind of work.”

4. Take extravagant care of your teams. “Remote working is often a boon for productivity when tasks are known. [But] it is bad for innovation and setting up new things (and finding a workaround for this is the challenge right now)… Ramp up communication as much as possible. Gather everyone together more often. Remind them that they are part of a cohesive organization.”

Early on in the pandemic, Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, told me something that turned out to be prescient. “Since the pandemic isn’t expected to end anytime soon, we have ordered kits for a number of staff who were having difficulty being efficient in their home work space; things like a mouse, keyboard, monitor, office chair, etc. Most of these items are pretty inexpensive on but go a long way to helping staff be productive and letting people know how much we appreciate their hard work during this crisis.”

5. Timing is the rarest of strategic skills. Now is the time. “Agility, innovation, optimism—these were the most critical traits for now, according to 22 CEOs surveyed in September 2020. This is a rare reset moment. COVID-19 has been a crisis on so many levels but it is also a huge opportunity: to rethink, to innovate, to shed things that need to be let go of, and to build for the future.”

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A Combo Platter of Metrics and Knowing Your Goals May Be Best, Two Leaders Say

Audience metrics and which ones publishers should focus on continue to matter greatly—and only get more varied as our platforms advance. It used to be having a high open rate and few unsubscribes would allow you a good night’s sleep. Now time-on-page, page views, scroll depth, article scores, shares, printouts and even absence can all keep you up at night. We asked two leading publishers to weigh in

“We still look at open rates for our newsletters and several other metrics—but it is important to understand what these metrics actually tell you, and what they don’t,” Davide Savenije, editor in chief for Industry Dive and its stable of 23 newsletters, told me in an email recently. “If you understand your goals, you can figure out which metrics you need to pay attention and in what ways they are relevant—it’s never a single golden metric; for us, it’s a composite picture of multiple metrics that fill in different parts of the picture and that are tailored to your goals. These metrics provide you with a feedback loop from your readers that helps you guide strategy and adapt where necessary as you see the results. Benchmarking is also important so that you have context on what the numbers mean.”

As Savenije and the other leading publisher I turned to for this article, Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, both indicate, it is not just one metric that can tell the whole story. It’s more of a combo platter, depending on your needs and goals—be it building subscriber loyalty, adding new members/subscribers, increasing engagement, moving people to and within your site, or all of the above.

“We’re looking at time-on-page in addition to page views to assess which articles are resonating with readers,” Fink wrote to me. “It’s useful to look at average time and total time for each article. This reveals that the article with the most clicks doesn’t always get the most time. That’s important because users put a greater value on the amount of time they spend with your content, than the number of times they click on it.

“We are also looking at scroll depth (i.e. how far down the page readers scroll). This gives a similar insight to time-on-page. We are working to develop a formula that combines page views, time-on-page and other user actions (print, save, share, etc.) into a single metric. My plan is to shift our internal focus on this new engagement metric, since it is more valid than one-dimensional page views.”

recent article on INMA titled, Should Time Replace Pageviews as the North Star Audience Metric?, showed that time spent has gained traction throughout the industry. At Facebook, time spent helps rank the News Feed. At Google, it informs search results. “At Netflix and Spotify, play time guides content, product and marketing decisions.” A Netflix study found that “the total hours spent watching was the most predictive for member retention, well ahead of movie or show ratings.”

Finding the metric that most ties into reader/subscriber loyalty would seem to be the gold standard. Mediahuis, a huge international media company in Antwerp, Belgium, also found that “aggregated time spent on the site by individual readers correlated with the likelihood they converted to paid subscribers and renewed.” Other research confirms this, though visit frequency often tops even time.

Of course, metrics do not tell all. Industry Dive goes the extra mile, setting up “measurement and feedback loops” to try to answer further questions about value and loyalty, quality of their coverage and even which readers you should covet most.

“At the same time that we use website and other metrics to tell us important specific things about readers, I think there is a big analytics gap in the journalism world in terms of measuring the qualitative value of your relationship with readers outside of these specific contexts,” Savenije wrote. “There are many important questions that the above metrics do not provide clear answers to. What value do readers believe you provide? How loyal are your readers? Where do readers see you vs. your competition? Are some readers more important to your editorial model than others, and how do you measure your relationship with them? What do readers think about the quality of your coverage? Are they satisfied with your product?

“At Industry Dive, we have worked to build up measurement and feedback loops to help us answer these important questions. We have a data analytics team within our audience department that helps us build measurement tools around these questions, and develop custom dashboards to make them easy for our editorial teams to interpret and glean actionable takeaways from them.”

That last part is music to an editorial person’s ears. In 2019, the Financial Times, Money-Media’s parent company, developed a Quality Reads metric that “measured page views qualified by the threshold of time and scroll depth,” writes INMA. “For a page view to be counted as a Quality Read, the reader needs to spend at least 50% time required to read the whole article estimated by the number of words and scroll to at least 50% of the page’s length.”

We will continue to cover this important topic. What are your go-to metrics? Let me know at Thanks!