Software is helping local media in the US create neighbourhood-level newsletters

I am all for using technology smartly to support local journalism, and it is interesting to see public media in Chicago use the Crosstown newsletter platform to add local data to a story so that it can be tailored for each neighborhood. For WBEZ in Chicago, that meant a reporter wrote one story, and the software produced 77 different versions. They say that the open rate is more than 70%, which means that the newsletters are finding a receptive audience. Fascinating.

A bit of a disclaimer first, not only is the New European a customer for Pugpig, where I work, but my team is currently doing some consulting for them. A couple of years, they launched a crowd-funding investment programme to allow them to market their newspaper. It has paid off so that they will be in the black with their pro-European British newspaper and digital news service. I like that they used this funding model to create a sustainable subscription business.

Future announced a decline in revenue, especially in the US market with the CEO putting the rough patch down to being hit hard by Google Algorithm changes, AI and the macro-economic environment. They saw a major decline in their technology commerce business with soft Black Friday sales, but sports and gardening were bright spots. They are splitting their portfolio into three segments. What is interesting to me is that these three segments aren’t audience-focused but rather focused on their performance: hero, halo and cash generator brands.

Cheddar was one of those news brands for millennials, and as it is up for what Brian Morrissey described as a “fire sale”, I wonder if this is an issue for media that was created for the generation’s moment but didn’t have a broader strategy.

News companies are getting serious about AI, and the New York Times has just announced its editorial director of A.I. Initiatives, Zach Seward. He will start by touring the newsroom and establishing principles for the use of A.I.

The Nieman Lab posts that caught my eye

Sarah Marshall highlights how post-platform has meant a change in platforms for her teams. She highlights work her teams have done on “Threads, WhatsApp Channels, Instagram Broadcasts, and the soon-to-launch Facebook Channels”. And YouTube Shorts has seen explosive growth as Comscore highlighted during its recent year in review. What I like about Sarah’s post is that it is focused on audience needs not just changes in platforms.

This piece caught my eye because it shows how a mix of public and institutional funders are trying to find a way forward for local news. Add this project in California to the Press Forward half-billion-dollar fund announced this year to other experiments such as information districts that leverage local libraries in the US, there are several efforts in the US to restore local news coverage.

After the AI screw-up at Sports Illustrated, there has been a leadership shake-up. But this coverage of the fall-out is a classic example of toxic leadership.

This is an important question, and this piece looks at some of the things that young journalists will need to be prepared for as they enter the field. I think that young journalists will also need to be taught how be entrepreneurial as they navigate an uncertain career path.

The case for mobile apps for local news publishers

Guy Tasaka makes a very sturdy case for mobile apps for local news publishers. He highlights stats on how much more engagement apps users. App users consumer more than 6x more sessions per month than desktop or mobile web users, and more than, he breaks out the incredible amount of adviews -151 - that mobile app users consume than desktop - 10 - or mobile web -7. And push notifications are such an important tool for publishers to engage users. Tasaka is right to highlight that publishers have aggregators to content with, but apps are an important tool in the publishing stack for local news organisations.

Print represents 25% of The Guardian’s revenue, and their publishing director Mylene Sylvestre attributes the resilience of their print business on distinctive content and a global footprint. It underscores how much British publishers are looking to a global market for growth. And both in their digital and print operations, they are looking to leverage data. I also think it’s interesting how they are looking to convert print readers in the UK to subscribers. That is different than the traditional newsstand sales in the UK, but it provides a more stable basis for their business.

And licencing deals like this one for the Guardian are a new source of revenue for major newspapers and other publishers.

I had to double-check the date on this story. Is is 2023 or 2017? No, it is definitely this year. Subscriptions for groups have been around for a while, but this is a good case study of how they could work for local publishers. Subscribers get access to special content including dedicated discussion groups, exclusive content, polls and a special badge on their profile. It is an interesting play for a local publisher. Could this scale for larger publishers?

For all of the smart uses of AI, there are some very public and very stupid uses of it that will damage a lot of businesses and the use cases for AI. Following Sports Illustrated being caught using AI to generate content. Publishers under pressure will be using generative AI. Will it be enough for readers to alert them that the piece was written by AI? Or will it further erode trust?

And here is an article about the Sports Illustrated AI controversy. So sad.

It is positive to see the industry being proactive with policies and processes to govern the use of AI in journalism. In another excellent piece from The Fix they dig into the new Reporters without Borders guidelines. One criticism of the guidelines is that they were not written by a broad group of stakeholders. They were written with journalism unions and researchers only, The Fix says. I also find it interesting that WAN-IFRA has decided not to promote the charter due to unrealistic expectations. It’s a valuable piece.

A thoughtful piece from The Conversation on what news organisations are doing as their content fades, or in the case of Canada has completely disappeared on Facebook, on social media platforms.

Just a few weeks before the Online News Act is set to go into effect in Canada, Google has struck a deal with Google. I am sure that news companies are hoping that a similar deal can now be struck with Facebook and that their visibility online will be restored.

Social Media this week: Musk drops the F-bomb on advertisers and disinformation networks build ahead of the US elections

Ahead of the US elections, Russian and Chinese misinformation networks are growing their audiences, Meta has warned. It is a worrying that after all that has happened over the last eight years that the US does not seem prepared to tackle this issue. But efforts to deal with them seem to have been hampered by partisanship.

And, of course, Elon Musk looks to be preparing for a messy divorce with advertisers. This comes as those in the ad industry are calling on CEO Linda Yaccarino to resign to preserve her standing and reputation in the industry.

Publishers are falling out with ads. This is where they are turning to for revenue

The first two items today are very closely related, and the common thread is this: Publishers are seeking additional revenue streams than advertising. The softness in ad revenue is driving layoffs at digital and traditional publishers - particularly with digital publishers such as BuzzFeed, G/O Media and Vice. But it has also hit publishers like the Washington Post, which has seen issues with its subscription and ad revenue.

Digiday is reporting that companies are leaning into events and not just traditional conferences but experiences as well. Broadly, publishers are trying to find ways to increase ARPU so that they can reach sustainability from a smaller but more engaged audience. We are seeing this at all scales of media, from small local newsletter-led players to larger publishers.

Many publishers and publishing startups have leaned into reader revenue. It has given major publishers like the New York Times a solid foundation to build their business on, buoyed publishers like The Guardian and given startups like Defector Media the basis for a sustainable business.

FT Strategies direct Lisa MacLeod has some straight talk and a strong call to action in this piece.

It is this trust and leadership from editors that will ultimately make the difference in the long-term fortunes of news organisations. Print is and will remain a premium product with a definitive market niche. But to ignore the commercial realities – and digital opportunities – of our industry is to be no better than the band leader on the Titanic.

We’re in a pivotal moment in digital media, and you only have to look at the decline of Tumblr. Automattic, the parent company of WordPress, bought Tumblr from Verizon for $3m in 2019, which was pennies compared to the $1bn that Yahoo paid for the quirky blogging site. Keeping to the theme of the decline in ads, Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg said that most of the ads on the site are programmatic. And sadly, only 0.2% of Tumblr users were subscribers. If they could get that up even to 10% the site would be fine. Increasing subscriptions seems like the most promising opportunity for Tumblr.

An important effort with core principles that should share wide backing:

  • Ethics must govern technological choices within the media;

  • Human agency must remain central in editorial decisions;

  • The media must help society to distinguish between authentic and synthetic content with confidence;

  • The media must participate in global AI governance and defend the viability of journalism when negotiating with tech companies.

Publishers need to reconsider their lack of investment in digital distribution

Greg Piechota challenges some long-held beliefs about the economics of digital distribution in a call for publishers to invest more in it. As he says, the cost of digital distribution is lower than print, but it’s not zero. Publisher’s reliance on organic - read free - distribution via search and social meant distorted (my words, not Greg’s) publishers’ expectations of what it cost to reach digital audiences. And I would add that it distorted the true value of these rented audiences. The value of audiences who have a direct relationship with a publisher is higher than those rented audiences. But Greg is making a broader point than simply converting unknown, loosely connected audiences to known contacts. He is also saying that publishers need to invest in their products, and they need to invest in distribution. After all, as he points out, Google paid as much as $10bn a year to be the default search engine on Apple’s devices. The bottom line is that free traffic is gone - if it ever existed - and publishers will need to invest in distribution if they want to survive.

I attended the Audiencers Festival in London a few weeks back, and a session on newsletters drove the point home once again on how valuable they are in engaging audiences, which leads to conversion and retention. The Telegraph has found “if a reader subscribes to their premium product after clicking on a newsletter, they’re 50% more likely to still be a subscriber after 12 months”, Maire Bonheim, Head of Newsletters at The Telegraph, said. It’s great to see data that proves the importance of newsletters to retention.

Questions have always swirled around newsletters with a view that younger audiences don’t read email, and this was raised at the Audiencers Festival. The durability of email newsletters has surprised me, and if anything, newsletters have come into their own as standalone products as well as parts of a modern media product portfolio.

As far as a standalone product, newsletters have proven themselves as the minimum viable local news product. Instead of a network of local news sites, we are seeing more networks of local newsletters. Michael MacLeod, Founder of The Edinburgh Guardian, talked about his experience launching the newsletter, which aggregates local news in Edinburgh. And retention was a major theme again. Only 5% who have subscribed have unsubscribed.

They have found a tremendous amount of engagement - not just views but also messages. Moreover, most of the users are local to the publication so not just audiences from elsewhere but actually in the US state that they cover.

This was big news in the UK Wednesday with the largest local news publisher - Reach - cutting 10% of their workforce. Their social-reliant traffic acquisition model has led to major issues with their digital traffic, leading to a 16% decline in their digital revenue. Having worked as a consultant with Reach for almost three years 2016 to 2018, this news is heart-breaking and hit a number of people I know.

The media industry continues to reduce its reliance on advertising, and Footballco, a footie-focused media business, is looking to grow its affiliate revenue this year. The only question that I have about putting their eggs in this basket is the impact that changes in search referrals might have to affiliate sales.

I have taken to saying that I rotate days using one of the new social media platforms. Hey, it is Tuesday, it must be Bluesky Day. I am happy to hear that I am not alone in feeling a little adrift when it comes to social media platforms. I am in four or five Slacks. I am on Bluesky, Threads and Mastodon, although I haven’t logged into the latter anytime recently more because I struggle to. And I’m still on X, Facebook, Instagram and Flickr. Ugh, too much. Too much.

I post this only because it shows how the New York Times is progressing in its work on bundles. They hit 10m subscriptions a year ago, but this is 10m subscribers. 

The death of a pioneer Philip Meyer might be called the Father of Data Journalism, but I think he would want to be remembered as the Father of Precision Journalism. He brought rigour and social science to his journalism and championed that application. For me, it was this data-driven interrogation of a story that was and still is revolutionary. This contribution cannot be underestimated.

I am adding this as someone who developed an incredible appreciation for management during my master’s degree. This is one to read and reflect on. Every manager faces fear, but then there is a question of what a manager does with that. This research indicates that some managers are not managing their own emotions. Not only are their employees paying for it, but their businesses are as well.

How Advance Local is using data and segmentation to improve subscriber acquisition

Conversion techniques are constantly being refined and getting more sophisticated, and data is at its core. In this example, newspaper publisher Advance Local is using data to understand the propensity to subscribe, or readiness as they define it. It makes a lot of logical sense that a loosely engaged user isn’t the likeliest to buy a subscription. Advance Local is using this data to refine its conversion strategy and its trial offerings. Most publishers are using a registration step, but Advance Local is instead using trial subs for the first step on its subscription journey. The case study also brings us back to one of the common themes of this newsletter, engagement. For those with infrequent engagement, they have been testing a day pass offering.

Nieman Lab offers up a good overview of how news outlets from around the world are using WhatsApp Channels feature - the US, UK, Argentina and India. They are seeing fast growth, solid engagement and even referrals back to their websites.

Coverage has focused on how traffic from social media, especially Facebook, to news sites has collapsed. Charlie Warzel has a different explanation.

Consuming news might always have exacted an emotional toll, but by 2020, the experience of picking through the wreckage of social media to find out about the world was particularly awful. It’s telling that during the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic, the very act of reading the news was rebranded as “doomscrolling,” and people have long called Twitter a “hellsite.”

He sees news fatigue as something that was created not just by events but also the toxicity of news consumption through social media.

The Press Gazette in the UK reviews traffic trends amongst local newspaper sites in the country. What is interesting is how Reach’s largest sites grew but many of their other sites saw traffic declines.

Press Foward is the foundation funded project that hopes to stem the collapse of local journalism in the United States, and they are not wasting time. This is an example of the type of projects that they are funding, local journalism projects in Chicago.

Hunterbrook, a hedge fund, is going to pay for journalism that helps it identify investing opportunities. Well, at least it is more productive than some of the investments that other funds are making in buying up journalism outlets.

Publishers are challenging the idea that scrapping content without permission for the purpose of LLM training is fair use, and the News/Media Alliance has called for an end to unauthorised use of publishers’ content. While I see a lot of potential for AI, I think there has to be a clear value exchange for content creators.

Elle UK’s community strategy creates premium subscription product

Community is a resurgence in terms of media. Whether it’s membership schemes or other strategies that include experiences, media outlets including Hearst and DC Thomson are both announcing their pivot to community. From a business standpoint, it makes a lot of sense because the community plays often include premium tiers that allow publishers to increase ARPU. That is definitely the case with Elle UK in which their membership scheme is £110 more than the basic subscription.

But I understand the repacking of media as a community play. I think that a sense of belonging is one of the things in short supply following the pandemic. People are hungry for social experiences and a sense of connection.

Essentially we are giving them access to the daily joys that we experience every day as an Elle editor. They are getting the opportunity to experience what we do every day. So we try the beauty products first, we go into the exhibitions, we go see the films, we go on the trips, we have these amazing opportunities to engage with thought leaders, women who are driving the discussions that are dominating our group chats, women who are sitting at the centre of fashion, beauty and culture.

One of the major themes in media over the past year has been the collapse in traffic from social media to publishers’ properties. The Verge conducted a rather radical redesign in part to lure more audiences directly to their site as traffic from Twitter dried up. The Verge has seen readership increase by 15% in part because of a dramatic, 62% rise in its loyal readership. This article is thing on details, but the tech publisher has been to convert casual readers into more loyal audience members.

Product management is first and foremost a coordinating function. Product managers work across organisations to bring stakeholders into alignment from editorial, commercial and technical teams. Communication is key, and as I found in my master’s degree, product managers are able to translate across these teams.

First, major foundations in the US announced a huge half billion dollar fund to try to address the crisis in local journalism there. They always said that this was a down payment that they hoped would act like seed money for more investment. And now, they have made that goal explicit.

Creators on social media are finding success in providing news on social media. Their followers find their recommendations more relevant than traditional media.

Apart from triple digital growth from Ilife Media’s Kent Online, Reach’s network of ‘live’ regional news website dominated the top 10. Reach’s large sites such as the Manchester Evening News, Birmingham Live and the Liverpool Echo stood at the top of the list. However, not all of the news was good for Reach. If its 31 titles, all but seven lost audience.

By distributing new shows through existing feeds, it helps leverage existing show followings to give new offerings a boost.

Maybe this is my adverse reaction to Natty Geo laying off all of its writers, but this feels like a strategy from the Platform Era. Followers and social media impressions are one thing, but as we have seen, that doesn’t necessarily translate into revenue and sustainable media businesses.

The Engagement Special: How Der Spiegel developed its engagement metric

There are playbooks and then there recipes for success. This is one of the most detailed articles that I have seen in terms of how a publisher has developed their analytics. Der Spiegel walks you through how they evolved the RFV - recency, frequency, volume - metric that was developed at the Financial Times. They also added regularity, and for good reason. The Spiegel Research Center at Northwestern University has shown how regularity is more highly correlated to conversion and retention than dwell time and the volume of content that a user consumes. It is why I stress loyalty and habit that drives known users as keys to building a sustainable media business.

But Der Spiegel adds another important element - empirical cumulative distribution function. “ECDF transforms numerical data, indicating the proportion of values that are less than or equal to a specific value.” It is some powerful data science that they are deploying, and they connect these audience metrics with their business metrics.

And in our second case study, WAN-IFRA looks at how The Conversation is building engagement and donations to add to the university funding that they receive. Analytics is helping them develop new content products such as their Quarter Life series, content that is focused on young professionals. The success of the the series has led them to other audience engagement efforts including quizzes and newsletters. And the next step in their development is in-person events.

These engagement efforts to build direct relationships with audiences are key as traffic drivers like search and social decline. That has been one of the major themes this year, but now, Digiday has evidence that traffic from news aggregators is also on the decline. That decline in traffic and the emphasis on first-party data has media leaders reassessing their relationship with aggregators.

From INMA, we have an overview of two mindsets that determine whether a company develops the agility to embrace innovation. The second mindset is often referred to as “fail fast” in Silicon Valley culture. I prefer to frame it as “learn quickly”. Or as the piece says: “Encourage a culture where failure is not a dirty word but an opportunity for learning and growth.”

Speculation grows as to who might acquire The Telegraph and Spectator in the UK. Germany’s Axel Springer has become a major global media player, but it has cast doubt about whether they will pursue a bid for the British newspaper. They want to focus on a digital-only strategy.

Meta’s Twitter-competitor, Thread, enjoyed a huge burst of growth when it launched because of its integration with Instagram, but then use tailed off. As they develop the product, use seems to have rebounded, and now they are talking about launching an API. The head of Instagram says that they will develop it even if it means more publisher content as opposed to creator content. I guess that shows where their priorities are.

Thus far, there have been limited use of AI to generate deepfakes during the Israel-Hamas War, but what little has been created has only created more mistrust of traditional media. How depressing.