Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Local news site finds people who are willing to pay, not just visit, want accountability journalism and 'Civics 101 content'

One of the biggest questions in the news business right now is how to bring in more revenue to pay for journalism. Digital subscriptions enforced by paywalls have become common at larger papers, but less so at smaller ones and online local-news sites. But they can work there, too, if the online Shawnee Mission Post in Kansas is any indication, Christine Schmidt reports for Harvard University's Nieman Lab.

The Post, in the Kansas City exurb of Prairie Village, has three full-time employees: husband and wife Jay Senter and Julia Westhoff, and reporter Leah Wankum; a fourth full-timer will join in January. It has been in business for nine years and has had a paywall for two. "Within three months it "had hit the milestone of 1,000 subscribers at $5.95 per month — the goal Senter had set for its first year," Schmidt reports.

Senter told Schmidt, “We started to look at what was converting people who just visited the page to people who wanted to pay us. The accountability journalism, the Civics 101 content we put out there — that was the kind of stuff that seemed to get people over the hump and giving us money every month. … Things that were on the fires-and-car-accident side of things would get a lot of page views, but didn’t seem to have lasting impact on the way that people live their lives around here.”

Schmidt reports, "More civic-info coverage replaced restaurant closures and car crashes, and the Post has now grown to 2,650 fully paying subscribers. That’s an annual run rate of nearly $190,000. The Post hasn’t tweaked its subscription price much since introducing it — though the first month is now 99 cents — and a 430-respondent subscriber satisfaction survey in January showed that a broad majority is happy with the value that the subscription provided."

Westhoff said many small publishers don't understand the value of their work to the community and don't push locals to acknowledge that. "For us, [introducing the paywall] was at the breaking point of 'We’re going to do this or we’re going to be done'," she told Schmidt. "We are really grateful that it did work out. For us, after having doing the site for seven years, that needed to happen."

Now the publishers "plan to trim their emphasis on advertising next year," Schmidt writes. Because subscription revenue has proven so reliable, the paper will cut the number of display ads by 20 percent next year. "The prices for the remaining ad slots will rise, but the user experience (which will be the same for subscribers and non-subscribers) should improve."

The plan is sensible, she opines: "Business models are different for different markets (and not all local models work in all local markets), but if The New York Times is seeing its digital advertising dip, advertising may not be the boat that a smaller outlet wants to tie itself to."

No comments: