When the chief marketing officer and svp of digital subscriptions at Tribune Publishing was weighing whether it was better to reset a reader’s clock for number of articles read at the first of the month or on a rolling basis, he hopped on Slack and messaged other publishers that took part in the Facebook Local News Digital Subscriptions Accelerator Program to see if they had any thoughts.
Mark Campbell got a slew of responses from folks who had already waded into those waters and had feedback to share. “Without that community, I would’ve had to hunt or guess what the result might’ve been,” Campbell said.
That Slack channel and the community it was borne out of, one that was organized by Facebook, has been a crucial step, publishers say, toward improving communication among publishers testing out paywalls and attempting to attract subscribers while navigating the challenging local news landscape.
In the first iteration of the program in 2018, publishers discussed how best to acquire customers and the kind of messaging they should use to win over users. The three-month program was funded and organized by the Facebook Journalism Project. Facebook has said it is committed to further investing in local news and will pump the industry with millions of dollars in support programs and launch accelerator programs in Germany, Canada and Australia to help publishers grow business.
Since the program, Tribune Publishing, which includes the Chicago Tribune, forecasted a 180% growth in digital-only revenue from 2017 to 2019. Digital subscription volume at The Seattle Times increased by 35% and digital audience revenue increased by 38%. Properties like Advance Local’s Syracuse.com launched a paywall, according to a post from Facebook today.
And while publishers said they did what they set out to do (increased subscribers), it was the forced community that came out of those meetings that made the project so worthwhile. They each also received $200,000, distributed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, to experiment with in exchange for their participation.
“The best part of the program was the networking and the connections made with other publishers across the country and being able to share and network,” said Ann Poe, senior director of digital consumer revenue at Advance Local.
Syracuse.com went in preparing to launch its own paywall and was able to learn from other publishers that had been in the space for years.
“It has less to do with Facebook and more about bringing publishers together and learning from best practices and experiences and the optimization and what else is next,” Poe said.
It’s not lost on publishers, though, that the opportunity to participate came from the same tech giant that created dramatic losses across the industry when it changed its algorithm. But the sentiment seems to be that if the opportunity to have candid conversations about the industry’s struggles presents itself (and they get grant money to experiment), what does it matter who organizes it?
Kati Erwert, vp of marketing and public service at The Seattle Times, said they walked into the room “extremely skeptical,” given the history, but the conversation proved useful and created a “network of people to turn to.”
“We haven’t been strong armed to use their platforms,” Erwert said. “We haven’t been hassled to do anything that we haven’t been waiting to do or experiment with. They’ve kept their word that they’re investing in local journalism.”
Returning publishers and some newcomers kicked off the second iteration of the Accelerator Program in March, this time meeting to tackle retaining digital subscribers.
“There is so much need and opportunity around digital subscriptions … that anything that can be done to give publishers a chance to hear from people inside the industry and outside the industry, hear from folks and connect with each other, that was a super big part of the program,” said news industry veteran Tim Griggs, who led the Accelerator Programs.