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News / Clark County News

From the Newsroom: New ways to attract readers

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: August 21, 2021, 6:02am

It’s been a while since we talked about overall trends in the news industry, so I thought I would update you on what our industry currently sees as its path to success in the future.

The focus remains on reader revenue. Back before web-capable mobile phones disrupted the information world, a newspaper relied on advertising for about three-quarters of its revenue. Subscriptions and single-copy sales delivered the rest of the income.

Nowadays, subscriber revenue exceeds advertising revenue at most newspapers, including at The Columbian. Rather than reach a wide audience through mass media, advertisers are increasingly online, trying to target individual sets of customers and would-be customers. By the way, The Columbian has a division called Sprout Digital that can help your small business do this.

I wouldn’t be surprised in the very near future to see our industry’s revenue model almost exactly flipped, with three-quarters of the revenue coming from subscribers.

Although this trend has been very difficult for the news business — overall, newspapers have lost billions in revenue and cut thousands of newsroom jobs — I do see a silver lining. News organizations with good content stand to be rewarded with subscriptions.

Recruiting people who will pay is the big challenge. We can’t afford to offer too many free samples. Over the last few years, most traditional newspapers have put all or most of their content behind paywalls. We are asking people who consume the news to support it. Certainly we have done that at The Columbian. And we have been rewarded. Our paid digital audience is growing, and we are doing our best to encourage this.

Consultants in our industry now refer to what they call the subscriber funnel. The wide part at the top is the general community, with some interest in what’s going on around them but no connection to a paid source of news.

The narrow bottom of the funnel is where you’ll find the connected people, the news hounds who have trusted us with their credit card numbers. We love you!

Of course, the challenge is how to get people to move down the funnel.

At first, we thought social media — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — would be a powerful tool. But our experience, and that of most news organizations, is that social media serves a lot of people who are content to stay at the top of the funnel. They’ll read a few free stories, or at least comment on them, but they mostly don’t subscribe.

Just below social media in the funnel are free newsletters. Traditional media is finding significant reader engagement with these, and better conversion rates. That’s why The Columbian the newsroom now offers a morning briefing, an afternoon briefing and specialty newsletters for prep sports, features, breaking news and subscriber exclusive stories. They are good products. Visit columbian.com/newsletters to subscribe.

Another tactic to get audiences down the funnel is podcasts, which are like radio programs you can download from the internet and listen to at any time using your smart phone, tablet or computer. Frankly, we tried these five or six years ago and didn’t see much audience growth, so we dropped them. Our best luck was with our prep sports podcast, which we put on hiatus during the pandemic. But times change; we may try these again.

Live events are another strategy. Done right, you can even make a little money from sponsorships and ticket sales. The Spokane newspaper has done quite a few of these, and apparently has an editor’s book club. I’m not that erudite. But we have had many years of success with our annual Economic Forecast Breakfast. As the pandemic eases we will look for more opportunity around events, I think.

Of course, the best way to attract subscribers is to do as much quality journalism as possible. And that is our commitment to you.