Digital Publishing
4 mins read

Digital subscribers for local newspapers: After adding 36,000, The Seattle Times lays out its strategy

Large newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have started mastering the shift to digital, and are seeing their circulations surge, led by a growth in digital subscriptions. And now local newspapers, like The Seattle Times, are also catching up, with an aggressive digital push. Here’s how.

A rising digital tide

The New York Times made more than $1 billion in overall subscription revenue last year, with a total of more than 2.6 million digital-only subscriptions. The publisher just announced a $24 million profit, with revenue from digital subscriptions rising to $99 million in the second quarter, a jump of nearly 20% YoY.

That’s not an aberration. Just last month, we reported about The Times of London and The Sunday Times reaching 500,000 subscribers, with digital subscribers overtaking print subscribers for the first time.

The Washington Post reversed its fortunes too; revenue and profits are up, as subscribers grow and digital ad revenue increases. The Guardian Media Group, owner of the Guardian and Observer titles, also reported their digital revenues overtaking print for the first time.

Can local newspapers emulate this success?

With comparatively limited resources and a smaller audience base, it’s naturally more difficult for local newspapers to master the shift to digital, but some—like The Seattle Times—are showing the way.

The Seattle Times put in place a metered paywall in 2013, and with a slew of digital initiatives focused on capturing attention and converting readers to subscribers, it has attracted a sizable chunk of digital subscribers, numbering more than 36,000 currently.

“Five years ago, the idea of paying for news was new. Since then, consumers’ expectations have changed,” said Sharon Chan, VP of Innovation and Products at The Seattle Times, speaking to Digiday.

Subscriber strategies

While the paywall is the biggest subscription driver for The Times, it is supported by a range of other digital initiatives like email newsletters, contest tools and an election app, all of which help to keep subscribers engaged and attract new ones.

“Newsletters are leads for the Seattle Times funnel.”

“Newsletters are leads for the Seattle Times funnel,” said Chan. “At first it was many things. We wanted writers to be creative and try out a lot of things. But we’ve refined that to drive subscribers and then retaining them.”

Although launched comparatively recently, newsletters have proven a significant subscriber growth driver. Currently, the publication has seven different types of email newsletters like daily news and food and dining.

The Times is not shy about getting readers on-board the newsletters database, ensuring the publication has a prominent place in the readers’ inbox while also maintain a top of mind brand recall.

Given the importance of the newsletters, as the “leads for the Seattle Times funnel,” the Times’ website has calls to action for various newsletter subscriptions wherever you go on the site: be it as a banner, as a break within the content, or as a pop-up, among others.

Although quite unrelenting in the push for driving newsletter subscriptions, the best part of the implementation is that it never feels overly intrusive.

Right now, the publisher’s email newsletter subscribers database has grown to more than 183,000. The newsletters drive up paid subscriptions to The Seattle Times through a simple content marketing strategy. Engaging stories in the newsletters drive readers to hit the paywall multiple times, and eventually register to subscribe.

There is close coordination between the product and marketing teams on various timely surveys to determine what is and isn’t working.

“A lot of these conversations about improving value proposition of the digital subscription program comes through surveys,” said Chan. “We look at unique visits and how many people get to the point where they have to stop [because of the paywall] and subscribe to read further.”

In addition to the focus on the newsletter funnel, other digital initiatives to improve retention and revenue include guiding readers to “Like” the Times’ Facebook page, and discouraging the use of ad blockers on the site, all of which lead back to the subscription funnel.

Another interesting, less obvious, retention effort has been turning on the comments feature. To be able to leave a comment, every visitor to the site has to register, thereby enabling the Times to move these visitors to their subscription funnel.

Also, this increase in engagement benefits both the Times and its readers, and now the publisher is working on improving the experience.

“It’s an important driver for us. We know from the market data that our readers value the ability to comment [on stories],” Chan said. “We’re exploring other products for high-quality comments system. How to remove trolls and hate speech comments is an important part of it.”

Putting all of these systems in place over the years has allowed The Seattle Times to run a very efficient subscription generation system powered by quality content, that engages readers.

An array of digital products and systems like the email newsletters and Facebook updates keep bringing in a regular stream of traffic—of return visitors and new readers—with funnels in place to capture the attention, and eventually convert the more engaged audience into paid subscribers.

This is a proven model that other local newspapers can mirror to effectively navigate the shift to digital, through a series of systems designed to capture and monetize audience attention.

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash