The 20th annual Online News Association conference converged in New Orleans Sept. 12-14, offering more than 160 sessions for organizations serving news online, including plentiful local news-focused panels, keynotes and collaborative discussions. One overarching theme was the importance of being audience-centered.

Here are a few takeaways from the event that local media organizations can consider immediately.

Session: Real-life local news revenue experiments that aren’t advertising

With funding at the forefront of many of the topics at ONA, a panel of experts outlined eight new business model ideas that encourage relationship building with the audience and offers a revenue stream.

1. Project Text: For a small recurring donation, readers or viewers sign up to send and receive texts from reporters.

2. Wirecutter: The product review website and subsequent newsletters, owned by The New York Times Co., gives readers honest and in-depth details about products, offers discounts on products, and generates revenue through affiliate links.

3. Philly Eats: As an experimental restaurant app, Philly Eats leverages existing restaurant review content from The Philadelphia Inquirer to give users trusted, expert opinions about the local food scene.

4. Talent acquisition: Working with technologists and entrepreneurs for recruitment, marketing, community cultivation and economic development, hosts paid job postings and sponsored content among its unbiased, original niche content that attracts job seekers.

5. Community or topic-based events: Funded primarily through sponsorships, media companies including Berkeleyside and San Francisco Public Press use events as a strategy for converting new members, and after events, organizations benefit from editorial lift and content such as videos and wrap-ups from the event.

6. Niche audience + broad appeal: With subscription boxes growing in popularity, news organizations are finding even small audiences can be fiercely loyal and willing to pay for content, exclusivity and goods. Companies like NPR are hand-curating and shipping wine, artisan crafts and local foods to paying members, which promotes the media brand, creates a new revenue stream, and keeps supporters eagerly awaiting more.

7. BoiseDev: Rather than a traditional paywall, the development- and growth-focused independent publisher BoiseDev uses a time wall, which allows paying subscribers to see content a set number of days before it’s accessible to the general public.

8. Continuing education: News organizations can offer educational content and opportunities around high-interest topics for their local communities at a cost, such as how Generocity creates news and events focused on social good in local communities.

Session: Getting people to pay for local news online 

To make money with subscriptions, stop tracking ad-driven metrics, said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean at Medill School.

Going beyond page views and duration, analysts with Northwestern’s Medill School delved into reader and subscriber behavior data from 16 news markets large and small, following the release of a report featuring local news leaders, and presented additional insight with a panel of experts at ONA. Two core themes arose from the research.

1. Habit is the single best indicator of subscriber retention.

“If I can get you from reading one day a month to 10 days a month, that cuts the churn probability by half,” said Edward Malthouse, Haven Professor at the Medill School at Northwestern University. “Differentiated content is what gets people to come back, not commoditized content.”

2. The more content someone consumes, the more likely they are to churn.

This could be because the poor ad experience users receive leads to disengagement, Malthouse said.

Session: How to make Facebook work for your local newsroom

A more refined posting strategy and focusing on what the Facebook audience wants were key messages from the session centered around using Facebook in local newsrooms.

At Newsday, Audience Engagement Editor Elaine Pinat explained that they are posting less on Facebook but more relevant content to their unique audience on Long Island, N.Y.

See the full deck and worksheet from this session.

Session: Lessons From the Instagram Local News Fellowship

In June 2019, Instagram and the Missouri School of Journalism kicked off the Instagram Local News Fellowship placing three of the journalism school’s 2019 graduates in three metro newsrooms for a summer fellowship.

The three student journalists spent the summer working at The Boston Globe, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch helping the newsrooms build community and attract younger readers by rethinking and reinventing the papers’ Instagram strategy through local news coverage on Instagram. The student fellows also worked with high school students, from a high school without a student newspaper, in proximity to their assigned newsroom.

Session: How Instagram Stories helped us to double traffic and engage audience

Franak Viačorkam, digital media strategist for U.S. Agency for Global Media and a VP of the Digital Communication Network, shared how Instagram Stories can keep your audience engaged and inspired, including instruments and tactics to make Stories stand out, lead the audience to your website, as well as mistakes to avoid.

Session: CrowdTangle Trends Report: How is local news performing on Facebook?

Last week, CrowdTangle released its U.S. Local News Trends Report, highlighting data from about 2,700 local news publishers’ post frequency, content mix, scheduling, video views and interactions on Facebook and presented findings with a panel of news leaders during ONA.


See all of the ONA19 sessions hosted by Facebook, CrowdTangle and Instagram.