|Columbus County, North Carolina|
High and his team accomplished the change with lessons from the University of North Carolina's Knight-Temple Table Stakes program, which was a joint creation of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The program, launched in 2015, first worked with The News Reporter and seven other North Carolina newspapers to try mobile and digital news practices, then kept honing the techniques as it expanded in subsequent years. The project has identified seven major "stakes" that can help newsrooms improve their digital footprint.
The newspaper was founded in Columbus County in 1896 and has been owned by the same family since 1938. Like many papers, it saw a decline in print circulation and ad revenue for years before its digital overhaul, Jenny Clore (the paper's director of marketing) writes for Better News. Shifting to a digital-first strategy allowed it to tick the boxes on the first four stakes: Serve targeted audiences with targeted content; publish on platforms used by your targeted audience; produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs; and funnel occasional users to habitual and paying loyalists.
Before making the change, Penny Abernathy from the UNC Hussman School of Media and Journalism encouraged High and his team to gather data to make sure they were taking the right steps. They did this with a survey and focus groups, Clore reports.
The News Reporter posted more and sooner on social media and the web. Before, it had kept stories offline until they appeared in print, but this resulted in low engagement since the stories were old news by the time they appeared online, Clore reports. The paper also made video posts a bigger priority, since those get a lot of views. And, the publication examined its analytics to see what kind of stories readers were looking at, and launched weekly newsletters based on that data.
The changes weren't just online. The paper switched from Monday/Thursday print publication to Tuesday/Friday, which meant reporters who were posting online all the time got Sunday off, and started delivering by mail, not by carrier, which saved money. Many papers have abandoned carriers.
Eight months after the website had launched and readers were accustomed to looking for news on it, The News Reporter launched a metered paywall. A longtime donor sponsored digital subscriptions for every student and teacher at the local high school, which the paper hopes will increase civic engagement among students. They also recently began offering corporate subscriptions, which employers can buy at a slight discount and offer to employees as a benefit.
Read more here for comments on what worked, and Les High's other advice to publishers who want to make similar changes.