Thirty news organizations from North America are currently participating in the Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator program, focused on reader revenue. Local Media Association staff joined and participated in the virtual workshops.
The news organizations — half of which are owned or led by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, or other people of color — were invited to 12 weeks of group sessions led by Blue Engine Collaborative, a consortium of mission-driven consultants and advisors focused on driving digital audience growth and revenue. As part of the program, participants also received customized coaching from the team at Blue Engine. Together with their coaches, Accelerator teams put together test and project plans to jump-start or grow their digital subscription/membership businesses. Teams also received grant funds to execute on their reader revenue strategies.
This article is the second in a series of case studies from LMA on selected Accelerator participants, to share ideas and insights with the industry. This case study features The Bulletin in Bend, Oregon.
The Bend Bulletin has a great problem: the opportunity to grow alongside a boom in residents relocating to Oregon. By building a culture of learning from their data and from direct reader feedback, they plan to capitalize on that opportunity, to the tune of more than 2,000 new paying subscribers and 10,000 new newsletter readers by the end of the year.
The road to this point has not been easy.
Longtime employees of The Bulletin have seen their fair share of newsroom upheaval, as previous owners of the newspaper filed for bankruptcy twice. Staff members expressed relief when they were purchased by EO Media Group, a local ownership company, in July 2019.
Despite the influx of energy from new owners, Publisher Heidi Wright said many company operations remained the same. There was little coordination among departments.
After the sale, Bulletin staff focused on recovering from the ups and downs of ownership transitions, producing the daily paper, and rebuilding trust and credibility in the community, said Editor-in-Chief Gerry O’Brien.
“We weren’t really focused on [revenue] at all [in the newsroom] … we just kind of wanted to get our legs under us,” he said.
The newspaper’s opportunity was growing every day. Bend’s home in Deschutes County, Oregon, is the state’s fastest growing county, adding more than 40,000 new residents in the last decade. But as new residents moved in, they weren’t necessarily introduced to The Bulletin brand, which was an opportunity staff members talked about during the Accelerator program.
The Bulletin team purchased a list of new residents to its three-county coverage area, and mailed them postcards offering an e-gift card in exchange for their email address.
New residents who responded received a series of three onboarding email messages that provided an introduction to Bend. Then they moved onto a new mover customer journey, a 12-part email series explaining more about the area and how to engage with The Bulletin. They expect to gain 270 new subscribers from this effort over the grant period.
Focus on metrics: Before the Accelerator, most newsroom staff meetings revolved around what was going to be on the front page. The team held fast to the standard that the front page would be all local news every day to encourage local readership.
But after absorbing lessons from the program, which taught ways to use analytics to inform content strategy decisions, the newsroom shifted its meeting emphasis away from the front page.
Wright recalled the first time at an internal meeting that the team looked at its audience funnel. Staff members realized that 90 percent of their audience was at the very top, which means little is known about them and they aren’t coming back to the site frequently.
Wright said that was an “aha!” moment for her.
“Now we are analyzing that and paying attention to it and figuring out how to get more of them at the top of the funnel, get them through the funnel, and then keep them,” she said.
To do this, Wright said the company plans to hire staff to focus on audience engagement, analytics and social media strategies.
Section editors are also more empowered to work on engaging with readers on newer products beyond the website, such as newsletters, social media, and text alerts.
Newsroom staff members always had access to site metrics via Google Analytics, but they realized they needed more insights into what content subscribers valued. They signed an agreement with Metrics For News, an analytics tool from the American Press Institute, as part of their grant.
Newsletters help convert readers: As newsletters have become more valuable tools for subscriber acquisition, all newsroom staff members pay attention to newsletter open rates and total number of subscribers.
They also doubled down on their strategy by increasing the frequency of some and adding more content to others.
The most successful tactic they deployed to move readers down the funnel was launching a weekly newsletter from editor O’Brien. The newsletter is sent to 18,000 users who have registered but not subscribed. It includes summaries and links to the top stories of the week, information on how to sign up for other newsletters and their texting service, as well as a subscription offer.
In one edition a few weeks before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, they asked readers to share their memories of that day. The responses were overwhelming, and editors included many of them in their 9/11 coverage.
Listening to audiences: The engagement with readers from the question about 9/11 is just one example of how the newsroom staff who participated in the Accelerator has added more tools for listening to their audiences.
During the Accelerator the newsroom also sent out an 18-question survey to readers and received more than 500 responses.
One of the data points they honed in on was the fact that more than 30 percent of respondents said they go somewhere else to get live music and event information. While a majority of respondents said they do turn to the Bulletin’s GO! magazine and newsletter, it was concerning that enough said somewhere else.
As a result they revamped the newsletter content to include more content and links to things to do.
What’s also emerged from the weekly newsletter from the editor is that readers are frequently unaware of the impact the news organization has on the community. When O’Brien highlighted investigative work, for example, readers said they didn’t know about the important work being done by the newsroom.
He realized based on the audience’s feedback, that they haven’t always made their best work visible to loyal readers — and also haven’t always made a clear request for those readers to subscribe.
“I mean, it seems like common sense. You know, you hear it all the time to do these kinds of things. But you really need to do it and be consistent about it,” he said.