What does it take to increase subscribers from 2,800 to 12,000 in three years? TH Media, the parent company of the Telegraph Herald, is in the middle of answering that question.

The Dubuque, Iowa-based news operation was among five North American-based publishers selected to participate in Google News Initiative’s Subscriptions Lab. The GNI Subscriptions Lab is a part of the Digital Growth Program, an effort to help small and medium size publishers succeed online. Bob Woodward, vice president of Woodward Community Media and publisher of TH Media, called the opportunity a “game-changer for us” compared to previous efforts to boost subscribers.

GNI Subscriptions Lab provided the resources to help realize ambitions already held by TH Media, Woodward said.


“We had developed the experimental mindset and agility, but we just didn’t have the right tools until now,” he said.

He also assembled a team to lead the effort, including Sales and Customer Service Manager Cindi Olson, a 13-year TH Media veteran who was assigned to oversee audience development. Interactive Director Matt Connolly, a 15-year company employee, was named to lead the technical side of the project, including all database management.

The internal culture changed early amid the transition. That meant banning “circulation” from the staff’s vocabulary, a term that Woodward considers to be outdated when talking about digital subscriptions. He also invited Olson to attend TH Media director meetings and Woodward Community Media management meetings to help reinforce this new innovative thinking.


The Telegraph Herald set a goal of 12,000 paid subscribers generating $1.2 million in reader revenue by the end of 2023. To accomplish that goal, as a part of its GNI Subscriptions Lab project roadmap, the publication set targets across a number of core metrics: monthly average users, average visits per user, conversion rate, churn rate and average digital subscriptions revenue per user.

Olson led experiments to learn what sparked readers to subscribe, drawing from lessons learned during the GNI Subscriptions Lab to “pressure-test” the market.

“I didn’t understand that as well as I should have before,” Olson said. “I’m testing all the time now.”

The team tested language and offers to entice new subscribers.

In total, she tried 15 different experiments on various landing pages. Here is the team’s progress in advancing digital subscriptions from October through the end of May:

  • 1,194 new subscribers (+43% increase, 3,997 total subscribers)
  • $41,400 in new subscription revenue (+30% increase in reader revenue)

As experimentation progressed, TH Media updated page designs for subscription pages and language for the subscription offers. The user process was also improved, reducing a five-screen sign-up effort to a single page. Connolly also helped set up campaigns to onboard new subscribers and re-engage dormant subscribers who were at risk of churning.

Additionally, he worked with TownNews to install a new “Offer Builder” paywall system, which tightened the paywall and led to readers seeing subscription offers earlier in the journey. With that change, Connolly is optimistic he will see conversion rates increase. TH Media’s eastern Iowa newspapers already report evidence of success — they increased subscriber conversions from 0.8% to 2% after switching paywalls.

Olson’s research also indicated the Telegraph Herald could increase monthly subscription costs without significant impact to conversions. Results from  several experiments indicate the average digital subscription revenue per reader jumped from $12.95 to $14.95.


The news outlet learned it could better retain subscribers who initially paid an $8.95 introductory rate, but retention rates weren’t as high when the introductory rate was a $1 special offer (which increased to the full $14.95 once the promotion expired).

Olson credits the TownNews BLOX CMS system for making data more readily available to analyze results from these experiments. She can explore who subscribed, what pages they visited and how they got there.

Telegraph Herald offers a dozen or more newsletters to keep readers engaged.

Connolly then organizes much of that data, tracks progress on the 2023 target goals and summarizes his findings in a monthly internal report. The report recently expanded beyond top stories and social engagement to highlight content that drove users to subscribe. Additionally, Connolly includes traffic sources as well as analysis of what sources could draw more users.

In the coming weeks, we’ll share a full report with additional learnings and results from the first Google News Initiative Digital Growth Program Subscriptions Lab.

Subscribe to the LMA Accelerate Local newsletter to get updates.