By Emilie Lutostanski • Director, Local News Resource Center
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the fifth-generation family-owned newspaper Record-Journal, based in Meriden, Conn., has found ways to not only drive subscriptions but also support local businesses while getting creative with new revenue opportunities.
In April, Record-Journal signed on to participate in the COVID-19 Local News Fund, a program administered by the 501(c)(3) Local Media Foundation to increase coverage of COVID-19 issues in local communities. In the first 40 days since initiating a support campaign that petitioned the community to donate and/or subscribe, the Record-Journal saw 87 new digital subscriptions compared with zero new subscriptions in the prior 6 weeks, or an 12 percent increase, and nearly $19,000 in donations, according to Publisher and Executive Vice President Liz White.
The support campaign utilizes multi-platform personal appeals from the publisher, editor and other staff to ask readers to consider the importance of local reporting and contribute however they’re able.
“Asking for donations was a mental hurdle to overcome and … I think it has helped us communicate to our community that we need to be supported by them in whatever way possible,” White said. “That’s an important thing that’s come out of this. We have much stronger, clearer messaging everywhere on our site and our newsletters. It allowed us to position subscriptions along with donations in a way that we hadn’t positioned before.”
Before joining the fund program, Record-Journal was already in the process of developing the functionality to donate – an initiative born from its “facts aren’t free” cross-departmental team subcommittee focused on consumer revenue that has met for more than a year. Because of the pandemic and economic crisis, the team now uses weekly meetings to recalibrate Record-Journal’s revenue growth plan, including how it will continue to engage new users and subscribers.
“With all these new people visiting our site and seeing our newsletters, we want a good onboarding campaign … because we have some people that weren’t even engaging with us two or three months ago,” White said. “We need to say, ‘thank you, and here’s what we’re doing with the money.’ That could be a really strong message to new users in the onboarding and retention emails. ‘You helped us, now we’re putting it back into the community to help you.’”
Record-Journal has published thank-you messages across mediums in response to the outpouring of support, and the team is keen to put that gratitude into action through real business support. At the onset of COVID-19, Record-Journal made extensive digital reporting on the local impact of the pandemic free to read, even as it received more site traffic. It also began offering free business listings on its site and certain clients free ads.
“For some businesses who had to close but we’re still able to operate — like a lawyer doing wills, for example — we ran free ads. And they got business and they came back,” White said.
Record-Journal also launched an ad-match program, providing locally owned businesses $250,000 in dollar-for-dollar matched advertising from April to August. Advertisers can apply online for as little as $200 and up to $5,000 in matching funds per month.
“We’ve gotten in about $40,000 in new business and around $20,000 and saved business, and that’s important,” she said. “I think, more importantly, it’s a way to communicate to the businesses that we’re trying to do as much as we possibly can to help them through this.”
Next, Record-Journal is also planning a subscription offer in which annual subscribers could receive a gift card to a local restaurant or local business.
“There’s so many more people now that are engaging with content and valuing it more. With the new people to our site, I want to try to get them to do a longer-term commitment and really focus on annual subscriptions,” White said. “You buy the full-price annual subscription, you get a gift card to a local business of your choice. That helps the local business community; it helps the consumer because they’re getting something back, and that helps us because we’re getting the subscription commitment for a whole year.”
Soon to come at Record-Journal is also a new local heroes recognition campaign, which White said was easily sponsored for $4,500 and will include gift cards to local businesses for honorees.
White was personally inspired to launch an initiative that supports local businesses through promotional social content. The RJ Shop Local Live campaign leverages Record-Journal’s 20,000+ Facebook followers to showcase the offerings of local businesses as they reopen, after months of stagnation due to coronavirus.
White said the goal of the Live broadcasts is to connect customers with locally owned shops, services or restaurants — driving immediate phone calls and inquiries from eager customers — currently at no cost to the business.
“The two ways that we’re trying to think of this as a business model: one is we’re going to try to get a B2B sponsor like maybe a bank or an insurance company. … We’d keep it free if the dollar amount was high enough, or charge a lower amount to the businesses if there is a sponsor,” White said. “If we don’t get that, then we’re thinking maybe charge an advertiser a small one-time fee. … It might depend on the type of business, but half the price if you’re an advertiser. We want to turn that into a longer-term relationship with the business.”
The RJ Shop Local Live posts so far have seen strong success, with many overperforming even relative to news content. White shared an example of one shop gift-shop owner who saw an immediate response after her business was featured.
“She got dozens and dozens of phone calls right after the video was over from new customers that she would never have before,” White said. “It was just kind of amazing to me that that’s how well it could do for a business.”
Recently Record-Journal received nearly $100,000 in grant funding through the Facebook Journalism Project’s COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program. White said about $30,000 will go toward helping local nonprofits in two ways: through dedicated reporting from Record-Journal on the issues addressed by nonprofits, and a double-free ad-match program — similar to the program for advertisers — with which local nonprofits can share their own mission and message at no cost.
“Our local United Way has identified 40 nonprofits that need help and support the most. … We need to cover those agencies and their underserved communities more, and with the funding, we’re going to have dedicated reporting around those topics,” she said. “Then for the same 40 nonprofits, we’re going to use our advertising match program. The paid funding will come from Facebook and we’re going to do a double-free match for the 40 nonprofits.
“With all the different things that we’re doing, I’m just so happy that we’ll be able to tell the community that we’re using the money to give it back to them.”