What do I have to say to get you to subscribe?

Editor’s note: This is one of the occasional posts we do speaking to someone with something to say on topics that we find interesting. If you are seeing this and are not yet signed up to Deepnews, sign up here start receiving our blog posts every week, and a Digest of quality news on an important subject every Friday.

By Christopher Brennan

Over the last several years, the decline of smaller newspapers has firmly established itself as an unstoppable narrative, with the headlines that get the most attention from reporters on social media almost always including words like “layoffs” or “closure.”

Beyond the doom and gloom, some of those articles move from the problem to the solution, and mention the possibilities to save local news going forward. There is the non-profit model on one hand or, what is increasingly becoming the go-to option for papers big and small, subscriptions.

Putting up a paywall is not that difficult, but local papers also need people to actually input their credit card numbers and become part of their communities. So the question remains: why does someone do that? Last week I had a chat with Yujin Kim, a researcher at University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement, who set out to clarify one angle, the messages that newspapers use to push people to subscribe.

In her recent paper, Kim worked with local newspapers in the U.S. to test which messages were more effective on different channels like social media or email: a) those that framed subscriptions in terms of a gain to readers or b) those that framed things as a loss to readers if they didn’t. Examples she cites are the NY Times gain-framed slogan “Truth. It needs your support” versus the Washington Post’s loss-framed “Democracy Dies in the Darkness.”

Kim worked with the local papers to A/B test different messages and see how they performed on different channels.

“One significant finding was on the Facebook versus email models. Basically, the findings are that the gain frame works better on email than on Facebook,” she said.

This perhaps tells us a bit about the way that Facebook is used for news and the sort of messages that get more attention there, but also hints at why the people who do sign up for newspapers may hit subscribe.

While there was limitations to the significance of the results in other tests, Kim also said that in none of the tests did the messages about losing out outperform the messages about gaining from the value of news and being informed.

I was interested in Kim’s study in terms of Deepnews because the data we have on how our higher quality scores (4s and 5s out of 5) predict subscriptions suggest something similar. In our analysis of 17,000 local news articles, the percentage of articles with a 5 that led to at least one person subscribing immediately after reading was a staggering 35%, far higher than for articles with lesser scores. Articles highlighted by our higher scores also had a much higher likelihood of converting a reader within 30 days, as readers go through multiple pieces of all different types that the newspaper offers before deciding to commit.

The move to subscriptions is happening at the same time that local newspapers have realized that they need to use data better, though for too many outlets the focus on metrics raises fears that clicks will be prioritized. Reporters have spoken up against being pushed towards writing about menu changes at Taco Bell rather than covering their communities. At the same time as there has been a focus on clickbait in some corners, I think that the Deepnews Digest, a different sort of metric, shows that there are local newspapers, with subscription-only, non-profit and other models, who are doing important, in-depth work that scores 5 or 4 in our model.

Kim’s study also mentions previous literature on people who subscribe to a newspaper to promote their membership in some sort of sub-group, potentially the sort of personality that wants to be part of the bigger conversations that are made possible by well done journalism. I think that metrics like the quality score can be part of changing the narrative around local journalism from one of decline and fear of collapse to one that says “you are the kind of person that is interested in excellent stories, here are ours, come and be part of the conversation.”

If what this subscriber sub-group wants is depth, then it seems like the path to subscriptions, and with it profitability, may lie with providing higher quality content rather than hoping that your outlet gets lucky and has page views rain down on your fluff article rather than everyone else’s fluff article.. The next step is being able to find and use that excellent journalism as efficiently as possible, and accompany it with the right sort of message.