The challenges and headwinds facing U.S. local news publishers are considerable both in terms of staffing and revenue. U.S. newspapers have shed half of their newsroom employees since 2008 with the loss of 36,000 jobs, only partially offset by 8,700 digital-native newsroom employees added over the same period.
Revenues are also markedly down and whilst the majority of U.S. adults believe their local news media are doing well financially according to the Pew Research Centre, only 14% say they have actually paid for local news in the past year, either through subscribing, donating or becoming a member.
Layered on top of this is the Covid-19 pandemic which, whilst proving the value of local news to millions and driving up subscriptions, has caused a collapse in ad revenue particularly from businesses in local services, performance venues, and hospitality industries.
That’s the terrible irony of this moment. The amount of time Americans spend with journalists’ work and their willingness to pay for it have both spiked. But the business that has supported these journalists — shakily, on wobbly wheels — now finds the near future almost impossible to navigate.NiemanLab, March 2020
Fast forward to the end of September 2020, and many of the challenges are more acute than ever – especially for local news publishers based in cities with high transient populations such as San Francisco, Dallas or New York.
In an interview with WNIP, JulieAnn McKellogg, a veteran of the Washington Post and McClatchy, and a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, discusses how local news publishers can flourish even when faced with Covid-19 and highly transient audiences.
Can you tell us about your background?
After journalism school at the University of North Carolina, I worked at Voice of America, before joining The Washington Post as a video producer and editor, winning the Capital Emmys and Edward R. Murrow awards.
I left to build a video network at McClatchy, spanning the company’s 30 newsrooms. We collaborated with local newsrooms on everything from national politics to local investigations. It’s at McClatchy where I discovered my passion for local news.
My experience in journalism and desire to connect experts with their audiences inspired me to join Subtext as the director of audience growth. Subtext is a text-based subscription platform that allows thought leaders, media companies, creators and more to communicate with their biggest fans via text.
What challenges and opportunities do local news publishers face that report on major metropolitan areas, especially those with transient audiences?
There is an opportunity for newsrooms in more transient communities to grow both engagement and revenue by building products that meet the needs of newcomers. Traditionally, news is reported and written with the assumption that the audience has been following a story. However, for newcomers that’s likely not the case. This segment of the audience has basic information needs that are currently scattered across local government and business websites.
Now take the Sway, a product built by The Pilot, a local newspaper in Southern Pines, North Carolina. David Wornoff, the publisher of The Pilot, decided he needed to capture this audience after he noticed a trend of young military families opting to move to Southern Pines, N.C., rather than to the nearby military town of Fayetteville. Combine that with his daughter telling him he needed to create a “Skimm-like” product, and The Sway was born. The Sway’s subscriber numbers are bigger than their hometown of Southern Pines, and account for 15% of the population of the surrounding Moore county. In a recent survey of the Sway audience, a third reported connections to the military, as Wornoff had intended for the newsletter.
The initial investment in a product that can be updated as needed and marketed to newcomers presents a long-term opportunity to capture that audience.JulieAnn McKellogg
The opportunity is clear when you look at the growth of cities across the U.S. next to the decline in market share that newspapers have experienced. Take San Francisco or Dallas, two of the most transient U.S. cities. San Francisco is a young, transient city with a vibrant newsroom in the San Francisco Chronicle. However, the editorial comeback of the San Francisco Chronicle, and the city’s quickly growing population hasn’t brought the number of digital subscriptions anywhere close to its print circulation numbers of the early 2000s.
In 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle’s print subscribers accounted for 67% of the city’s population. As of 2019, digital subscriptions equated to about 6% of the city’s population. In that same time period, the population of San Francisco grew by 16%. While San Francisco is certainly the most extreme example in the available data, the saturation of the market for Dallas was 43% in 2002 and 5% in 2019.
What do local news publishers need to keep in mind when tailoring messaging to newcomers vs. natives?
It isn’t as simple as dividing readers into two groups—newcomers and natives—and tailoring messaging for each category. Readers, within any community, have different motivations and having insight into those motivations can help guide a local news publisher to build better relationships with their audience and to be of service to them.
This brings me back to my earlier point that audience-driven research will help local publishers appropriately tailor their messaging to different groups within a given metropolitan area. This means connecting directly with current and prospective audiences and asking them questions about topic interests, where they get their news, and what format they prefer for reading their news.
Beyond tailoring messaging in stories, local news publishers should also be agile in terms of adjusting story formats as the needs across reader demographics shift. Historically, journalists have been stuck in one very specific format. Technology has created a rapid evolution of formats and newsrooms must keep up no matter what audience demo they are serving.
Can you give some examples of local news publishers successfully attracting, retaining and building audiences in transient cities?
Embarcadero Media in the San Francisco Bay Area created a newsletter called the Six Fifty, targeted at people commuting between San Francisco and tech campuses in Silicon Valley. The Seattle Times has a newcomers guide, although it hasn’t been updated in a couple of years, to cater to the influx of newcomers for Amazon among other companies. And Spectrum News in Austin delivers newcomers a one-stop shop for utility providers in town, trash pick needs, public safety information as well as things to do.
To be honest, this content is hard to find but in talking with newsrooms across digital, television and newspapers – and across the country – many publishers are working on a new product for newcomers.
The Sway, which I mentioned before, is a truly great example. The twice-weekly newsletter has captured a new audience with a conversational voice, a mix of news and a guide to local experiences and little affiliation with the newspaper brand. Pre-Covid there was a successful events business as well. The team took the time to interview and design the product around the newcomers in their community. They learned they weren’t looking for special treatment, they just wanted to know what many of the locals already knew like which preschool to send their kids or where to eat on a Friday night.
Today, the Sway newsletter alone brings in over $100K annually in new and reclaimed revenue.JulieAnn McKellogg
How can local news publishers convert readers into loyalists?
Readers become loyalists when your product becomes a habit for them. To create this strong bond with readers, local news publishers need to get more personal. It’s not just about asking your audience about what they like to read. It’s understanding their daily lives. How much time do they have in their day to read or listen to your product? What information are they currently missing? How do you create efficiencies for them? Then figure out where to position your product.
What’s been lost for transient populations is that newsrooms may be writing about them, but they aren’t writing for them. Pay attention to shifting demographics and trends in your community, and learn how you can make those newcomers your audience and not just the topic of a story.
Audience research isn’t an exercise you do one time. It’s ongoing. And as you learn, your products should evolve. This, in turn, drives not only loyalty but revenue, which if we’re being honest is ultimately what we need.