Commentary

Local Publishers Face Key Test In Keeping Readers After Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has been painful for publishers that have lost advertising revenue. But it has also been an opportunity to promote paid subscriptions.

Local newspapers that offered 90-day trial subscriptions for free or at steep discounts need to have a strategy to retain those readers as lockdowns ease and many people get back to their former routines.

News outlets are seeing signs of "stickiness" among digital subscribers who signed up while they were stuck at home, according to a report this week by Mark Jacob, a former newspaper editor chronicling the progress of Northwestern University's Medill Local News Initiative.He provides several insights from publishers of all sizes, including Gannett, Tribune Publishing and Oahu Publications.

Gannett, the biggest newspaper chain in the U.S., saw an 85% yearly jump in net adds -- or new subscriptions minus cancellations -- when the pandemic dominated the news from March to June. The publisher expects to get a clearer idea of how many readers it keeps after their trials end during the next three months.

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Email is an essential tool in engaging digital subscribers, especially with newer technologies to segment readers based on their engagement with promotions, news alerts and other editorial content. After getting readers in the door with news about the pandemic, it's important to showcase a broader range of content that keeps people coming back.

Publishers can run simple promotions, such as emailing "thank you" messages to subscribers, along with reminders that their support is greatly needed to provide key local news. Those emails can include links to recent stories that generated a lot of traffic.

The news doesn't all have to be about weighty topics, like the pandemic and protests against police brutality. While that information is important, people also are looking for news about places that have reopened, advisories on public safety or ideas for what do with kids once school ends. National news outlets can't provide that level of granularity in their coverage.

The dearth of live sports has been especially challenging for newspapers that could claim near-exclusivity on coverage of professional, college and even high-school teams. Until sports, live events and other happenings come back, those areas of coverage will remain challenging. When they do come back, local newspapers can cover first.

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