Short Takes: A complex answer to a complex question

Grace Lett, Samantha Bowers and Chris Olszewski

Short Takes is an occasional series that captures interesting work by Missouri School of Journalism students.

Local newspapers want the answer to one question: What’s the best way for content to increase digital subscribers?

We spent the semester working with the McClatchy publishing company and two of its papers, the Kansas City Star and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, to answer this question. This meant sifting through 1,800 articles, sorting them into different categories and analyzing the data. We also created a survey for the Star’s and the Star-Telegram’s recent subscribers and spoke with them on the phone about why they chose to pay for a subscription.

Unfortunately, we didn’t find a simple answer. However, after analyzing the data, we found some important takeaways for local newsrooms.

We took our cue from the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier, which grew digital subscriptions by 250%, according to a Poynter article. The newspaper shifted its focus into becoming an audience-first newsroom and increased subscriptions from 1,700 to 6,000 in two years. Staff members analyzed their stories using two metrics: unique visitors and engagement time, and if an article did not reach 500 unique visitors and 72 seconds of engagement time, it was re-evaluated.

Intrigued, we decided to approach our data inquiry in a similar way, only slightly modifying these metrics when looking at our own set of data by adding a 50% bounce rate and 1,000 or more unique page views. The articles that met these thresholds (and the ones that didn’t) shined a light on what stories hold the interest of local readers.

Most stories that meet these thresholds either ask a question in the headline or add something beyond the lede. Often, these stories provided further analysis into a story. For example, crime stories made up a portion of the stories that met these thresholds, but these pieces went more in depth than a simple crime brief.

Among this, we also found that national stories with a local angle don’t do as well as some newspapers think. For example, articles that double as a local and national story, such as President Trump visiting Fort Worth, did poorly compared to purely local stories.

We also looked deeper into each paper’s content and subscriber activity online. We realized editorial pieces that often featured “personality” writers did overwhelming well, based on page views. We took this a step further and looked at their social media presence.

We looked at opinion sports writers for The Kansas City Star and what their activity on Twitter looked like. We found that being one of these personality writers, like Sam Mellinger, often goes hand in hand with personal branding. Typically, if a writer has a large following and often engages with their audience, they are more likely to drive traffic and readership to their content. Think of it as self-promotion.

This also seemed to correlate with what our data was telling us — while there were fewer editorial pieces in our data set, they had the highest conversion rate, which means these stories drove the most subscribers. It’s safe to say that when consuming something local, readers like to read a piece by a familiar face.

Audience and technology are constantly evolving.  In a time that is a bit uncertain for local newspapers, it’s important to listen and evolve with your audience.

Grace Lett, Samantha Bowers and Chris Olszewski are convergence journalism students at the University of Missouri.

  • Lett has worked on the outreach team at the Columbia Missourian and was the social media director at Global Journalist. Her Twitter handle is @GraceCLett20.
  • Bowers has created multimedia stories for KOMU 8 News, Cheddar TV and Vox Magazine. Her Twitter handle is @SamanthaBowers_.
  • Olszewski has created multimedia stories for KOMU and Vox Magazine and was a reporter and anchor at KBIA. His Twitter handle is @ChrisGOlszewski.

If your news organization could benefit from having a group of talented students work on a new product, service or other innovation, contact RJI Associate Director Mike McKean to explore the options.


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