Paying For Your Audience Isn’t A Bad Thing

Paying For Your Audience (Isn’t a Bad Thing)

Apr. 16, 2021

If you’ve worked in a newspaper newsroom at any point in your career, the following quotes may seem familiar to you:

“We don’t want to be perceived as promoting ourselves.”

“If we ask our readers for money, they won’t trust us.”

I’ll admit, after spending a good amount of time in local TV newsrooms, and then returning to the newspaper world, the distain for self-promotion of any kind at print publications boggled my mind. 

Thankfully, the unwillingness to promote stories or asking people to pay for the journalism they read is fading away along with that wall between the business side of publications and newsrooms.

But that simple idea of self-promotion may not be enough for most publications to stay afloat. That’s where the Journalism Growth Lab comes into play.

The Lab started out as a side hustle for Phillip Smith, but is now, well, an actual thing for Smith and Emily Zajac.

What is it? The Journalism Growth Lab focuses on paid acquisition — the process of growing audiences and finding new subscribers by using online advertising on platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter and others.

Because I love funnels, I’ll say that it’s a way to get new people into the top of your funnel, or helping move existing folks down the path to a digital subscription or membership. 

“This is something I’ve been watching some publishers do for a very long time,” Smith said. “It’s amazing that more haven’t looked into it.”

Some of that has to do with that innate ability in some journalists to avoid promoting themselves. Some of it is the absence of knowledge about social advertising. But it also has to do with that ever-popular duo of “lack of time” and “lack of resources.”

“Moderately well-staffed newsrooms don’t have the time to take this stuff on,” Smith said. 

So Smith and Zajac offer up their in-depth knowledge and skillset to do it for them.

What levels of publications are the right size to work with the Growth Lab? As Smith describes it, an outlet like the Philadelphia Inquirer would be too big, while a single founder/owner startup is too small. The smallest organizations Smith works with have about six to 12 people in the newsroom, and the largest have about 50.

Smith said he doesn’t advise paid acquisition for startups, telling them to put in the legwork to build their audience organically.

“Most startups have a natural early momentum from friends and family and word of mouth,” Smith said. But after about six to 12 months, they might run out of steam. That’s when they need to think about how they are going to raise awareness and get more folks into the top of the funnel.

Smith has published a lot of research on paid acquisition — two good examples are here and here in case you want to go in depth on the subject (which you should).

But Smith offered up some simple advice for anyone who wants to dip their toes in the paid acquisition space.

No. 1: Do you homework first and understand how much you can pay for a new newsletter subscriber or a new paid subscriber, member or donor.

“So many publishers come to us and say they ran a campaign for two weeks, and got newsletter subscribers for $2 each, and ask if that’s good,” Smith said.

If you have to ask, that means you didn’t put in the effort up front to understand what you can afford.

“Do the homework to know how much you can spend and what a good campaign looks like,” he said.

Here’s an example from research Smith did with Lenfest in 2019:

No. 2: Be straightforward with your ad copy, not misleading.

Smith said he’s heard from publishers who have worked with bigger agencies that brought in lots of newsletter subscribers, but the engagement numbers were terrible. In those cases, the agency may have used misleading campaigns, like a personality quiz or survey where people had to give an email address to find out the answers. That’s … not good.

“Just be straight with people,” Smith said. That means tell people what they can expect from you. Make them curious about your content and then deliver.

No. 3: Habit is key.

Don’t just think about acquiring email subscribers. Also think about the folks who have interacted with your publication in the past, and get them to do it again … and again.

In other words, build brand affinity. 

“Try to bring people back quickly as a way to make them more aware of the brand or the funnel,” Smith said.

If any of this sounds interesting to you and you’d like more information about what Smith and Zajac are doing, you can check out a few case studies on the Growth Lab site.  You also may want to tune in to their podcast via the Journalism Growth Club.

Cashing In On Viral Stories

Cashing In On Viral Stories

Apr. 9, 2021

Our friends over at LION Publishers provided an interesting look at how Block Club Chicago made $100,000 thanks to a rogue alligator.

Here’s how it went down:

Pulling in $100K is quite impressive. This shows how a little bit of outside-the-box thinking can led to a new revenue idea. Imagine how many fun, viral stories your newsrooms have published over the years that you didn’t capitalize on. Well, actually don’t think about that too much or else you’ll start pounding your head against your desk once you realize all of the money you left on the table.

You might be laughing, but seriously… did you know there’s a company out there that is dedicated to finding viral sports moment and memorializing them basically overnight on t-shirts? Yep, and it’s very successful. Oh, and the company president used to work for Gannett. 

If you’re looking for a more newsy example, well then you should check out, which started out as a lifestyle website and transitioned into a local news. It is currently run by Glacier Media Group, and earns revenue by selling Vancouver-related merchandise. (If anyone wants to buy me a Chinatown Otter shirt I will not refuse it…)

At one point they struck a deal with the British Columbia Provincial Health Officer’s very popular sign language interpreter on a series of prints. Nigel is no Chance the Snapper, but the prints were still a hit with the locals.

In any case, if your community is anything like every other community in the world, the people who live there (and used to live there) are proud of where they’re from. And they probably would love to show their hometown pride on their clothes.

Now who is going to help me print up some shirts for THIS GIANT FRICKIN’ SNAKE that is currently hanging out in the trees in my neighborhood?

Searching For Small-Town Heroes

Searching For Small-Town Heroes

Apr. 2, 2021

Poynter published a very interesting article this week that builds a strong case for the importance of small-town newspaper editors — the kind of community-focused people we are identifying and training through the NewStart program.

In John W. Miller’s article entitled “Looking back at a day when small-town newspaper editors could be heroes,” he focuses on the life of newsman Walter “Buzz” Storey and ponders what role people like Storey can and should play in America today.

The Buzz Storeys of the world are slowly disappearing, and so are many of the outlets they ran for decades. Miller discusses members of the next generation of journalists who may fill the void, but more are needed. And these journalists will not just have to worry about filling space in a printed product, but running the entire business and serving the needs of their communities in as many ways as possible.

Programs like NewStart can help. If you missed our announcement earlier this week, we are expanding our Media Solutions and Innovation program. Folks who are interested in ensuring that local journalism not just survives, but thrives, will be able to earn an online master’s degree through WVU’s Reed College of Media, or they can go the non-degree route and join our Executive Training Program. 

The results of both programs are the same — training in how to make a local news outlet sustainable for years to come.

If this interests you, check out the details for both programs here. And if you have additional questions, send me an email and we can find a time to chat.

We would like nothing more than helping the next Buzz Storey become an integral part of a local community.