By Lyndsey Rosales, Local Media Association contributing writer

Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University is using data science to help news organizations understand the digital behaviors that motivate readers to pay for local news.

In 2019, Medill published research findings from a study that delved into subscriber behavior to find out the practices of readers who continue to pay for local news. Led by the Spiegel Research Center (SRC), Northwestern studied subscriber behaviors from fall 2017 to winter 2018 at The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Indianapolis Star, Newsday and 12 smaller Midwest markets owned by Gannett media company. The research found across markets that creating a regular reading habit is the single biggest predictor of subscriber retention.

Northwestern Local News Initiative launched in April 2018 with the goal of helping local newsrooms with financial sustainability.

“The idea behind it was, amidst this local news crisis, local news has never had a greater need for research and development and they’ve never had fewer resources than they do now,” said Tim Franklin, lead director of Northwestern Local News Initiative and Medill’s Senior Associate Dean. “We wanted to help fill some of that void.”

Franklin said this study is unique because while many news organizations have access to online readership data, Medill data scientists are integrating that information with subscriber data to understand individual paying customer behaviors across local news websites.

“I think this is really important research because the behaviors of online subscribers or members may be very different than the behaviors of non-paying readers, and we’ve found that to be the case,” Franklin said.

“We’re in the midst of this historic transformation in terms of a business model from a primarily advertising-based model to a business model much more focused on reader revenue,” he said. “What we’re trying to help with is, what are the specific behaviors of paying readers on local news sites.”


Findings showed that it is not the number of page views and clicks that move the needle in terms of revenue.

“What we found in the Spiegel research is that in terms of hanging onto paying local news readers, more clicks doesn’t help local news organizations retain subscribers, and I know that sounds counter-intuitive and it is counter-intuitive,” Franklin said.

Here are a few important things to know about the study’s findings.

  1. Regular reader habit is what retains digital subscribers, not number of clicks. Number of page views and clicks used to correlate to more programmatic advertising revenue. But now that large technology companies are taking most of the digital ad revenue, newsrooms have to be creative to find another predominant news source, Franklin said. Creating and sustaining reader habits drives revenue.
  2. Digital intrusive ads could play a negative role in subscriber retention: According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, 58% of adults access news via mobile phone. If a reader has to spend too much time on a website looking for information they need and are interrupted by pop-up ads and videos, they’re likely to move on and get information elsewhere.
  3. Readers want a local, curated news experience: To retain paying customers, news organizations need to create original content that’s relevant to their community and make it easy to access. “Snackable,” or digestible articles that are easy to find matter most.

“Reader habit should be a focus of your strategy, and then the question becomes, what are your tactics … that you build from there. What are the things local news organizations can do to build reader habit,” Franklin said. “That might sound simple, but it’s actually a paradigm shift. For decades, newsrooms have been focused on page views … but it’s a very different strategy to say, ‘what are the things we can do to build regular reader habit.’”

Northwestern Local News Initiative representatives speak at a recent summit about its research findings related to digital subscriber behavior.

How journalists can use this data

Publishers and journalists can use this data to ensure teams are covering the right news, offering the right variety of stories and using effective strategies for audiences, such as ensuring an optimal reader experience (e.g., newsletters compatible with mobile phones).

Franklin said the research has provided more insight to journalists about what their readers value. After the study, the San Francisco Chronicle changed some beats to accommodate reader preference. The Chicago Tribune is now experimenting with a subscriber-only newsletter. Unrelated to this study, BBC News is offering shorter versions of articles in addition to long-form to provide choice for readers.

Future research

After the study was published this year, a number of news organizations called Franklin asking for Northwestern to study their markets. Franklin said his short-term goal is to re-study the same news organizations studied in 2018 to find out what has worked and changed since the last study in hopes of growing existing findings.

Long-term, Franklin hopes to go bigger with this research and study more news organizations throughout the country. On Oct. 25th, it was announced that Medill will receive a Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge award to help create a subscriber engagement Index that would allow participating local news organizations to gauge their performance with their peers.

“We are seeing progress in being able to attract and keep digital subscribers,” Franklin said, “I’m really encouraged by that. And [we’re also seeing] the increased sophistication in newsrooms about the behaviors of their audience. It’s a healthy thing.”