Progress ushered in after a new CMS launch takes time to show.
When we first published the report, “Digital content platform upgrades for small media outlets,” data from the four news companies — New York Amsterdam News, Houston Defender Network, The Atlanta Voice and Washington Informer — was insufficient to demonstrate the breadth and depth of business improvements that a functioning, fast and user-friendly CMS can enable.
Reader revenue and newsletter subscribers have soared with website improvements and the use of Newspack Campaigns – which show interstitial prompts that drive visitors to sign up for newsletters, donate or subscribe.
Now, months since their Newspack sites were launched, publishers detailed the results of having a top-to-bottom focus on digital transformation. Read the full bonus chapter on audience and revenue outcomes in the updated report.
Josh Barker, digital editor for the New York Amsterdam News, said the team added a popup feature through Newspack Campaigns to help capture new readers and grow their engagement.
“If you’re a first-time user to our website, the first thing you see before you see the story is a pop-up asking you to sign up for our newsletter,” Barker said. “We implemented that last year and we saw a huge jump in the number of people wanting the newsletter.”
After switching to Newspack, New York Amsterdam News grew newsletter subscribers from less than 1,000 to more than 14,000 in 2022.
Chief Revenue Officer Siobhan Bennett said after testing a few pricing points, the team realized the New York Amsterdam News email product was prized by advertisers — and underpriced.
“We started making money in 2022 off the newsletter, and our revenue projection was $20,000. We ended up making $72,000 in 2022,” she said.
At the Houston Defender Network, newsletter subscribers grew 525% from 2021 to 2022, boosting email to be the second-highest source for site traffic. In the same time frame, the users on the Defender’s site referred by email grew 1,363%.
Reader revenue gains
The Defender team set up an email onboarding cadence that guides new subscribers through the company’s brand-, mission- and community-focused content. Within those emails is an ask to donate to support the critical journalism the Defender produces. It also runs year-end and seasonal invitations for financial support.
“Email is still the No. 1 driver of donations and paid subscriptions, so it’s about getting users on the website to sign up for the email, then leading them down the funnel with the right messages at the right time,” said Apryl Pilolli, who serves as a fractional technologist for these four news organizations as part of their participation in the Knight x LMA BloomLab.
Through donations and paid subscriptions, the four news outlets saw an average increase in digital reader revenue of 327%.
- The Atlanta Voice +710%
- Houston Defender +186%
- New York Amsterdam News +283%
- Washington Informer +128%
Print, staff and the future
As the news outlets make strides toward revenue diversification and sustainability via digital innovation, no one is leaving a print legacy behind.
With support from the BloomLab, the news organizations have actually seen print revenue gains since improving their digital presence and broadening their digital advertising options, said Robert Walker-Smith, digital revenue director for the BloomLab.
“When we go after integrated solutions selling, we have a 4% lift on print among all 10 publishers in Cohort 1,” Walker-Smith said. “That is far exceeding the reporting that print declines should have been between 12-15% between 2021 and 2022.”
Ultimately, Pilolli said the publishers who are seeing the most growth in digital revenue are the ones that have leaned into new technology — especially solutions that drove reader, sponsor and philanthropic revenue — and provided adequate training for their teams.
“Technology can only go as far as its users,” Pilolli said. “These four news organizations have invested serious time and resources into their digital transformation, and many of those revenue and audience gains have only started to be realized.”
This is an abridged version of the full outcomes detailed in updated report, “Digital content platform upgrades for small media outlets.” Download the report to read the full bonus chapter.
More on the report
The report outlines the Local Media Foundation project to upgrade four Black-owned local media outlets to a new web CMS — Newspack — thanks to funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The final report from that project, written by Michael Grant, lead project consultant and CEO of Get Current Studio, with contributions from the LMF team, and updated by Emilie Lutostanski, director of the Local News Resource Center, describes the CMS migration path and results for all four outlets.
When Local Media Association and Local Media Foundation launched the Digital Transformation Lab for Publishers of Color in 2019, it created opportunities for a small group of Black-owned local media outlets to devise new sets of goals and metrics for success.
The outlets selected to participate in the original lab were The Atlanta Voice, The Dallas Weekly, New York Amsterdam News, Houston Defender Network and The Washington Informer.
Two of the five outlets — Atlanta and New York — received $20,000 grants in mid-2020 from the Knight Foundation to start enhancements to their digital publishing systems. Those grants were part of a three-year, $2 million Knight Foundation initiative to implement sustainable publishing solutions at local media organizations that serve underrepresented communities.
Then, just over a year after the Digital Transformation Lab launched, the Knight Foundation granted $60,000 to LMF to lead a project that expanded on the work of those two outlets. In that project, the Voice and the Amsterdam News, along with other media outlets in the Lab, would upgrade their digital content management systems, and all Lab participants and the industry at large would share in the learnings from those upgrades.
The Houston Defender Network and The Washington Informer later signed on to upgrade their digital publishing systems, and by mid-2021, the Defender had also received a $20,000 grant from Knight in its second round of funding for sustainable publishing solutions.
Knight and LMF agreed to bring in Grant to lead the organizations through migrating to a chosen CMS — a project set against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. These teams confronted aging technology as a business challenge and executed, with Grant’s help, a much-needed website upgrade. The report describes the process and the outcomes, including:
- Page load time improvements ranging from 82% to more than 3,000% on top-performing articles.
- Improved ease-of-use for staff and faster paths to feature/function enhancements.
- Better visibility into the tradeoffs between business-side needs — including third-party components that produce revenue — and overall site performance, enabling strategic decision-making about which opportunities are worth pursuing.
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