By Emilie Lutostanski • Director, Local News Resource Center
Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Portland Press Herald was rapidly executing a digital subscription campaign built around meaningful connections with the audience and valuable local journalism.
Since then and with perhaps a renewed passion, Stefanie Manning, vice president of circulation and consumer marketing, said the publication has received not only an outpouring of community support but an increase in subscriptions and email registrations through distinct promotions.
“We have been very focused on our digital subscription strategy. … When the pandemic hit, we thought really hard about how do we not get off that road while at the same time expressing our need for support from our community beyond subscriptions,” Manning said. “We very quickly put up a support message saying that we needed to support and that our coverage was going to be free but not free to produce.”
The Press Herald offers three ways to support: a subscription, gifting a subscription, or a donation. Before the publisher joined the COVID-19 Local News Fund, a program from the 501(c)(3) Local Media Foundation that allows independent publishers to receive tax-deductible donations for coronavirus coverage, it accepted about $13,000 in general donations. Through LMF’s fund, it has raised another $34,000.
“We’re really fortunate that we collected $13,000 before we pivoted to the tax-deductible option, which was so much better than the path we had,” Manning said.
Press Herald kicked off its support campaign April 28 with a TV spot, digital and print ads, social marketing, and a letter from the publisher, which brought in $17,000 in donations. On Friday, it followed up with an email featuring a personal video message from the publisher.
“This email campaign really really took off with results,” said Emily Payrits, consumer product specialist. “We collected another $12,000 in donations just from the email campaign in one day, and we were able to collect 64 subscriptions just to the Press Herald alone from this email.”
In emails, the messaging varies for subscribers compared to non-subscribers, Payrits said, and they are planning to send additional video message appeals from other staffers including the editor, reporters, and photographers.
On its website, the Press Herald has deployed a couple of versions of a new popup modal that requests the user to give an email address to access coronavirus coverage, resulting in 9,000 new known users the Press Herald did not have prior to the pandemic.
“When you get to your first piece of free coronavirus coverage, you get this modal and it’s telling you to sign up for free access,” Manning said. “One of our biggest strategies for accelerating digital subscriptions has been collecting email addresses, and we just didn’t want to abandon the opportunity to that given the heightened readership on the site.”
So far, despite the treacherous state of the local journalism industry as a whole, Manning said the response to the Press Herald’s support campaign has been surprising and motivating.
“We’ve seen our second-best month ever in digital subscription growth, while at the same time reaching out for community support for funds, so we couldn’t be happier about that,” Manning said. “I think that people are recognizing the importance of their local newspapers, in print or online. … We are beyond thrilled that we’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of digital subscriptions come in, which is really validating.”