Without Free or Favor: Compelling readers to pay for news [tote bags not included]
Session facilitator(s): Sara Konrad Baranowski, Matt Raw
Day & Time: Thursday, 4:30-5:45pm
SARA: Welcome. Can you hear me? Welcome to our session. Before we start, if anybody at any point needs to leave, we will not be offended. Just do whatever. If you want to walk out in the middle, that’s fine. If you want to participate in discussions or don’t. Whatever you choose to do is fine. We’re completely okay with that. This is a session without free or favor, compelling readers to pay for news, tote bags are not included. Apologies if you need one. Do you have one?
MATT: No tote bags.
SARA: So, it’s hard to get people to pay for the news. News used to be scarce. It was on TV, on the radio. It was what you saw above the fold on the newsstands. Now there’s an abundance. It’s own our phones, popping up, on social media, friends telling us about it. It’s everywhere. Whether it was scarce, it seemed like it was worth paying for. Scarce things are worth paying for. Now it’s more abundant, there’s a perception that it’s not worth paying for. And we think it should be paid for.
So, we’re all here because we do incredible things. It might be building really great things. It might be writing great stories. It might be building community or management. It might be great at management. And our organizations make enough money because of those cool things that we are still here, we’re still doing those things, we get to come to SRCCON, do better things and more things and different things.
But making money is not really at the top of most of our thoughts. It’s not something we wake up and think about, how am I going to make money today for my organization? But it’s important. Because if we don’t if our organizations aren’t making money, we won’t continue to have our jobs and continue to make these cool things and serve our communities. So, our crazy assertion, because we’re crazy, is people will pay for things that they find valuable. Especially if there’s no obvious substitute for that thing.
Hello in 1998. I am Sara Konrad Baranowski. Editor of the Iowa Falls Times Citizen. I oversee the news content in print, on the web, everywhere, social media, that sort of thing. Matt?
MATT: And what this slide doesn’t show you, these from the same yearbook. Sara and I went to high school together. Yeah.
SARA: 20th anniversary.
MATT: Yeah. It’s coming right up. And we’ve we stayed in touch, obviously, since 1998. And as old high school friends do, we talk a lot about how to get people to pay for news. And SRCCON came up and we thought maybe there’s something here. And we basically I think we came up we were like, we got to have the slide and we got to think of a
SARA: We have to find a way to put it up.
MATT: We have to have a way to of this slide. I’m Matt Raw. I head up a team of product designers at The New York Times. We think about ways to get people to pay for the Times. And once they pay for the Times, we think about ways to keep them around. We think about that position and retention. I find it incredibly challenging and rewarding work. As a designer, we think about how to align business and user needs.
And there’s no place that’s more misaligned than at the moment you ask them to pay. The reader wants to read a story. They want something from your organization at that moment. And they almost certainly are not there to pull out their credit card and subscribe. My team thinks a lot about how we sort of make that moment feel exciting. Feel like, you know, something that you want to do. Just basically persuade people that subscribing is in their best interest.
So, what we’re going to talk about today, we’ll just say it up front, there is no easy answer to the topic that we’re going to be working through together. And so, if there was an easy answer, I don’t think any of us would be here. But what we’re going to do is we will we’re going walk through an exercise that we’ve invented and we’ll see how it goes. It’s an experiment. Bear with us.
We want to sort of suggest ways that you might think about this problem for you in your own organization. So, one of the, I think, sort of underlying assumptions of this whole thing is that the Times and the Times Citizen, we struggle with the same problems. At different scales, obviously.
But the people that Sara’s trying to convince to pay for the Times Citizen, she’s thinking about their needs and she’s thinking about that audience. And in the same way that the Times is thinking about our product. So, we’re going to walk through an exercise together today to try to pull out some of those insights. And hopefully you’ll walk out of here and go to the next slide.
MATT: The goals for today is you sort of leave here having identified something really valuable that you make. Having thought about and maybe defined the audience that would value that thing. We want to connect you with other people around the room who have made similarly awesome things or have similar audiences so that you can share things you know and maybe techniques and tactics that they might try. And we’re going to just together we’ll come back together at the end to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities that this really thorny problem presents to all of us.
Okay. So, we finished the first thing on the agenda. So, here’s what we’re going to do. In a minute we’re going to pass out a large piece of paper that we’re going to work on together. A canvas. But first, well, actually, as we do that, the first thing that we’re going to do is ask everyone to sort of think on their own, solo about a thing you make or your organization makes that is uniquely valuable. Meaning you know audiences valuable it. You know there aren’t really good substitutes out there for it. And we’ll walk through the rest of the agenda in a second.
But basically we’ll do that solo and then connect with other people and discuss and talk with each other.
Okay. So, what do we mean when we say something that’s “Uniquely valuable”? Sara and I thought about what our organizations do that qualifies as a way to get your wheels turning about this problem.
SARA: Starting with examples from the Iowa Falls Citizen. It’s a town of 5,000 people, it’s a website, social media presence. And we’re a very small audience, especially compared to the “New York Times.” We work in a small community so we have the advantage of knowing most of our community. Most of the people who work at our organization have been there for I think the shortest number of years is like five, seven years. So, we know the community well, we’ve worked there, we’ve lived with these people. We see them at the grocery store and they trust us for the most part. Some people don’t.
We were getting beat up on a story on our Facebook page and this is someone from the community who came to our defense and listed all the fantastic reasons that she loves the work that we do. That’s unique to us. We’re trusted in that community. They believe in us and they’re willing to pay for our product. Our knowledge of the community, I think, because many of us have worked there for so long and it’s a small community and we cover it very well, we know the history of news that has happened. And we can answer reader’s questions.
This was a sewer line that goes under the river that broke and people had a lot of questions about it. We asked them to submit their questions and then we answered them. They believe us and they’re willing to submit their questions because they trust that we will answer them.
If you are a high school athlete in our town, you will probably end up in the paper. Which is not the case in many places. The town of 5,000 people and the county of 17,000, you know, we publish a paper twice a week, update the website every day. And you’re going to be in the paper. It’s great for your parents. They can clip it out or save it on the website and show it to all your relatives.
And leadership can unite. We are a member of the community. We are a locally owned company, family owned. We can bring together other businesses and organizations in the community and develop relationships that make the community better. This is an example of a subscription project that we’ve taken where we partner with a company in town and they buy subscriptions for all their employees and we then give them free advertising like this that shows that they care enough about their community that they buy subscriptions for their employees because they believe it’s important for them to be informed members of the community.
So, they benefit because it’s advertising. We benefit because it’s subscriptions. And it builds that relationship with that business
MATT: So, what about the Times? The things we do that I think are uniquely valuable. We have an amazing number of super creative technologists, designers, reporters who put together stories like this one about the MTA that explains why your subway train is almost certainly going to be delayed today. Many of those people are here. Thank you for that work. So, creative storytelling is one thing we do that’s uniquely great.
Another thing would be do you want to go to thanks. We have deep expertise. This is not unique to the Times. Lots of organizations have experts that they can rely on to help explain complicated subjects. But we wanted to call out, this is an example of something that maybe your organization does as well. So, in the case of the Times, what we can do is we can actually focus just on the Supreme Court, which is an incredible luxury in a lot of ways and something that we’re able to do just because of our scale.
Games. We do things. we have fun games. You feel smart. Any other spelling bee fans here? Yes. Okay. Spelling bee is awesome. And then last but not least, oh, yes. Sam Manchester. We do all sorts of experiments. If you’re a reader of the Times, you have the opportunity to sort of partake in some of the fun experiments that we try from time to time. Here, this one was Sam Manchester, our sports editor, he went to the Olympics and you could text him and he would text you back. I’m sure it was very fun for Sam, very fun for our readers.
Here’s what we’re going to do. Sara is going to hand out this large piece of paper. We’re calling it a “Canvas.” It’s a UX or strategy it’s a fancy term for a big piece of paper. We are going to fill out that big piece of paper together today.
And what this is for so, a canvas exercise is a way to kind of get a lot of ideas out on to a single piece of paper very quickly. It’s fast, which is a good advantage. It makes a lot of things that are implicit or maybe not talked about sort of explicit or visible. We’re going to sort of walk through. We’ll start at the upper left by thinking about things that we do that are uniquely valuable. And then we’ll regather and talk about how we’re going to fill out the following three quadrants.
But the idea is that by the end of this you have a sheet of paper that’s sort of filled up with lots of things that are of meaning to you, audiences that you think you might speak to. Sampling is sort of how you would connect those audiences to the thing that you would make and try it. And then the lower corner over here, how you sort of persuade them to pay for that work.
So, for now, just focus on the upper left. And does everyone have a canvas in front of them? So, Sara and I just walked through a few examples of the things our organizations do that is not be sort of creative about how you define what is uniquely valuable about your organization. And think about things you could do in the future that you haven’t had a chance to do yet. We want to try all those ideas out in this format and see what works. Let’s take about five minutes. This is the only part that’s solo. On your own, think about the things that you and your organization does that is really valuable and jot them down in the upper left corner of the canvas. And in a few minutes I’ll grab your attention and we will sort ourselves into groups and continue from there. All right?
If you feel stuck on the back there are some questions that can maybe get your thoughts started for each one of these. You’re welcome to take a peek at those. Or just raise your hand and we’ll come over and chat.
[Working on own]
One more minute. Okay. You can always go back and add more. That’s one of the best things about canvas, once you start to lay these out, you might start to go back and adjust something used earlier. I found the room really quiet after a day of everyone talking. So, the rest of the session will to the be quiet. So, here’s what we do.
I want to sort folks into sort of pairs or groups of three so that we can sort of share ideas that are similar. But first, just to give us a sense of what some of the things are so we can figure out how to group you. Would people be willing to shout out things they wrote down?
AUDIENCE: Doing something solo or sports related. Either something solo like in a side project on their own or something sports related.
AUDIENCE: I’ve got our high school local high school sports coverage.
MATT: Okay. Great.
AUDIENCE: Also, you know, our funding kind of mechanism. We’re independent in Connecticut and every year we donate a percentage of our profits back to the community to non profits. I’m not sure if anyone
MATT: Yes. So, there’s sort of a revenue component. That’s cool.
AUDIENCE: We have a civil and highly moderated comments section.
MATT: That’s rare.
[ Laughter ]
AUDIENCE: I serve predominantly low income is my target.
AUDIENCE: I’m not from a news organization. I’m from like someone that serves the newsroom. We have a broader perspective on the whole media overall.
MATT: The perspective is something you bring that’s valuable. That’s great.
AUDIENCE: We give away all of our content for free to local publications in Texas.
MATT: Okay. Great. Anyone in the back?
AUDIENCE: We have a unique perspective along the US Mexico border because we have newsrooms in all the border states.
MATT: Great. You have presence that no one else has.
AUDIENCE: The only news organization reporting on state policy exclusive.
MATT: One more?
AUDIENCE: User experience in the story format.
MATT: UX, awesome. Let’s do this. We were thinking we would try to divide into four broad groups. And those four groups would be if your idea is something editorial, something related to technology. If your idea is something related to design. And the fourth one is community and relationship. Does anyone have something that wouldn’t fit into one of those four broad buckets? Okay. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Let’s do this. If you’re the thing that you think is valuable is editorial, come over to this side of the room and then what we’re going to do is we’ll get into the broad groups and we want you to try to find somebody who has a similar enough idea to you, doesn’t have to be perfect. But just one or two other people that you could work with for the rest of this session. So, let’s do editorial sorts of things over here, technology sorts of things in back. Design sorts of things over here on the right on my right, sorry. Stage right. And community and relationship things up in front.
[Getting into groups]
Okay. Looks like most of you have sorted into broad groups. Do some quick introductions and see if you can form pairs or groups of three. We’re going to keep the groups small and we would like to interview each other. And it’s more manageable that way. See if you can find somebody with a similar idea or similar thing.
So, in your groups let me explain this one more time. In your groups, maybe just very quickly go around the group and say what like pick one thing from your list that you make that’s uniquely valuable and see if somebody else in your group has something similar and pair up with them. Is that clear? Okay.
MATT: Okay. Let me get your attention for just a minute. Okay. I can’t whistle, I’m sorry. I was going to do my daughter’s in third grade and she does this clap thing. Should I do it. My hands are full. All right. Okay, let’s do this. So, it sounds like most of you have had a chance to introduce yourselves and say what you do. Team up with one or two other people and find a little spot where you can work together on filling out the canvas. And what we’re going to do what I would suggest doing, and we’ll see how far we get with this is we’ve already started up here in the upper left. It’s sort of meant to go in a clockwise way. You have something that’s uniquely valuable. The next thing you might do is to think about who values it and who you know.
And, again, there are questions there are questions sort of on the back that can get you started with that conversation. As you have ideas or even if you have further questions like just jot them down here. The canvas is just meant to absorb all of the sort of output of these conversations. So, we’re going take about 30 minutes or so and we’ll just see how far we get. If you can get through all of it, that’s amazing. If you feel like you’re stuck raise your hand. We want to know. We’re trialing this out ourselves. If there are places where you have other questions. If the conversation goes in another direction, we would love to know about it.
Just raise your hand and we’ll come back and chat. After this we’re going to talk about the exercise of fill this is out. Get a chance for everyone to sort of share what they came up with and see if there are some patterns and themes that merge. Okay? All right. Let’s go for it.
[Working in groups]
MATT: Let’s do two more minutes and then we will come back together and share the discussion. Two more minutes.
MATT: Okay. Let’s wrap up the conversation wherever you’re at. [tapping microphone]
Okay. I’m going to let’s pick it back up.
SARA: All right. So, we’re going to share some of the things we discussed and realized and talked about the last 30 minutes. Does anyone want to start? Yes? Was there anything you were surprised by? Was this a challenging exercise?
AUDIENCE: Challenging, yes.
MATT: Challenging, yes.
SARA: How was it challenge something
AUDIENCE: The sampling part of it was like hard. You know? Like where beyond either the pay wall, what are the other options? Registration, three days, four days, 14 days. You know, are there other creative ways that will get you to your end result?
MATT: Do you mind saying what you talked about? Maybe there are some maybe someone else had some similar questions or ideas that they can help out.
AUDIENCE: Sure. Our shared audience come to our publishing organizations for high quality and in depth coverage of topics that they care about. Because it’s trusted, because you’ll get targeted and relevant content, it’s up to date. So, all things kind of in the moment. And so, I think earlier you were saying they want to know right then and not hit a pay wall. And so, how do you kind of build on that moment so that when they come back if they come back that they recognize how awesome it is?
SARA: Also so they don’t just get mad about the pay wall?
AUDIENCE: Yeah. They were so excited.
SARA: Other thoughts or ideas that came up? I heard some really great conversations. Yes.
AUDIENCE: It was really fun for me, at least, to identify the ways our organizations were so similar and all of the overlaps that we even though we were coming at it from different places. So, thinking about how our audiences are similar. How they’re similarly confused. How we can help them in similar ways was actually really helpful.
SARA: When Matt and I were coming up with this, how do we collaborate and hang out? And you work at The New York Times and I work in Iowa Falls. There are definitely examples. These are the same examples. That’s because it’s kind of the same for everyone. I mean, we’re all, like I said earlier, making awesome things that we would like for people to value and pay for. So, yeah. I think it absolutely you talk about no matter the size of the organization, there are similarities.
MATT: Did anyone else find that they were talking about very similar audiences?
AUDIENCE: Yeah. I think we between Vanity Fair and The Onion. Those are sometimes I think that the legacy kind of proceeds. There’s an expectation when you’re coming to those sites. You’re there for a reason. Not just kind of organic discovery.
And it was interesting through this whole conference, I work for Gizmodo Media Group too, I have been at The Onion for many years. Where is the place for us? I think it’s kind of the car wash at the end event news cycle. I’m on all of your sites reading and then I think for a lot of people it’s like a release. And I think that’s one of the unique objects of what we do.
SARA: One thing I think about when I hear all these things, like when people were tossing out their ideas earlier, do we tell our audience why this is unique? Do we tell them that we cover the news in our community better than anyone else? Do we tell them that we’re the authority on this issue? Like I think that this has been discussed many times in recent years. But I don’t think we necessarily do a very good job of explaining to our audiences what we do and how we do it or why it’s unique or why you should pay for it. I think that’s an important conversation to have with our audience.
AUDIENCE: I was just going to say, kind of related to that but with like the Times. I didn’t realize that the writer that you showcased who covers the Supreme Court has done it for 12. When you say we don’t do a good enough job. Why wouldn’t that be in a footer every time you write a story. That’s a simple one line. Boom! You’re giving credibility and reputation to
MATT: Yeah. I think you just came up with a little experiment to try.
AUDIENCE: Well, I’ll have to talk to you about who to get to implement that. He’s a former student of mine who works at the Times.
SARA: I think there’s a newspaper in Iowa that has an education reporter. I was reading the story and I was interested. And there’s a side bar and it said Molly’s covered education. She’s covered this issue for the last two years and she’s spoken with parents and students and decision makers. And if you have something that hasn’t been shared, this is how to get in touch with her. It’s really important online. It’s not just some reporter covering a story about school closing. She has history with this subject and here’s why you should trust her. And I think it helps.
AUDIENCE: That definitely helps lend credibility and trustworthiness and expanding your network. I think the question you raised earlier about in terms of do we do a good enough job of telling people why we should pay and why we’re the best at what we are doing? As storytellers, I don’t think that we should be telling them, we should be showing them with the coverage and the stories we’re telling them and the way we’re telling the stories. But as far as being able to add negative credibility or things like that. That’s super important.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, I 100% agree and I’m very much not a storyteller. That’s just not my core competency as a journalist. But one thing I know I’m very good at is finding lots of ways for the community’s needs to come to me the way I ask them or looking at other data sources. I already know that I’m about to deliver high value information and keep that feedback loop very tight so that I am continually able to tweak it to make sure that it stays high value.
I mean, that part of the thing is like, if you’re starting from, I think this is a good idea and then I’m going to make a wonderful story. You might be 100% missing the mark of things that people actually would pay for because they really need it and they probably told other people that they need it. But news organizations don’t necessarily listen to communities very well.
MATT: Did anyone else talk about how you sort of know whether your audience really values the thing that you think is so valuable?
AUDIENCE: Ask them.
MATT: Ask them.
AUDIENCE: They will tell you.
MATT: They will.
AUDIENCE: We kind of talked about how we don’t do that enough.
AUDIENCE: We talked a little bit about just that I mean, we talked a lot about audience engagement and we’re fortunate that we have a vocal audience in that they’re still listen we were talking about a podcast that we have. Our fans are really loyal, but they’ll tell you when they think an episode was bogus. Actually, this week’s seemed a little sketch or whatever. And they come back next week. We feel fortunate to have that. They feel comfortable or connected enough to say that to us.
And actually somebody said we should ask them more. We should do that more. I didn’t think about that. We don’t ask that question. We kind of take that for granted.
AUDIENCE: It’s like a very, that’s a what do you think? We’re on Facebook. Good stuff.
AUDIENCE: King part of that is we have become so metrics driven. We depend so much on numbers and forgot to have that to get behind look behind the numbers to actually talk to and understand the people that are behind those numbers.
AUDIENCE: I just something that was said just moments ago about how much do we need to convey? Like in a kind of ingredients list? How much time is invested or how much effort or expertise? I went to do an article and it made me realize one thing that I’m struggling with is counterbalancing a perception from a lot of the of the users that I don’t need to pay for you because you’re rich, because you make a lot of money on ads. Because because, you know, it’s un tolerated, whatever.
And I just wonder is it a problem to be very deliberate in hammering kind of how expensive this was to produce? If we don’t if we’re not also explicit with the other side of this which is how little the ads make. Which because if you have both components then in some ways you can you have both sides of the equation. It cost this much and it only made this much, so, yo. But is that a distraction? Is that kind of so heavy that it will be self defeating? Will it be a turnoff in the way that, like, showing misery is often not necessarily the best in the, you know, take the young, pretty children, migrants. Not the that’s that will work better than to get donations. What’s the
SARA: Go ahead.
AUDIENCE: That you can take that and do it in a way that kind of puts a positive angle to it. For example, we do I would get the text from you and we do member drives. We did a drive that was all around wanting to be able to pay for our elections coverage. We said we need this amount of money to have faster live results. We need this amount of money to put more reporters in the field. We need this amount of money to do these things for you as the reader. And so, those were those were goals that we sort of set out there. And it wasn’t like we were like, oh, this costs so much for us. And like, that wasn’t our message. Our message was, we want to give you these awesome services, but they cost money. And it was kind of just like putting a dollar amount on it. And we don’t know if that turned people off. We only know that we met our goals. You know? We don’t know how many people yeah. We don’t know how many people looked at that and were like, uck. But it was effective.
So, I think you can do in like a positive way.
AUDIENCE: The transparency piece is really important. So, recently the editor so, let me back up. So, I work for the American Press Institute, I don’t work for a newsroom. But we work with lots of newsrooms. One that we have been working with is the Sacramento Daily. And the editor published a column basically explaining their goal sort of strategy around digital subscriptions. And explained very clearly like where they’re coming from an economic standpoint and what that means for where the paper is, what it can provide and what they’re trying to do. And that is the first time that they have ever been that transparent with their audience about what it takes to do the work that they’re doing.
And, you know, all of the different things that they’re trying to do to better serve the community. And I feel like examples like that are really important to keep in mind because there’s a lot of different reasons why people will pay for news. So, we have done a lot of research about why people pay for news and the different pathways to subscription. And there’s a lot of different reasons. You know, some people pay because they have like a civic kind of minded way of thinking about things. They would pay for it no matter what. Other people are coming through the funnel in a different way.
You have to think about the fact that there’s lots of different ways about why people even think about why they’re paying for something. And transparency is something I don’t think news organizations are very good with. About how we make decisions and particularly how we talk to our audiences. It might be a breath of fresh air for people to find out how things get put together and you’re talking to them as a community. Not just somebody from on high sort of doing your job.
AUDIENCE: I was just thinking, this probably would work for a lot of corporately tied newsrooms. But even what you’re saying where you’re saying we need X dollars to do Y. You’re saying, well, we have a plan. We’re not just taking your money to whatever. But what my thought was, is it possible after you’ve published that to literally show them the spreadsheet. To say, this is how your money was spent. To say, we didn’t take a thousand dollars and use did 500 for steak dinners. Here’s our bill for the FOIA requests, the travel expenses. Breaking that down. I wonder if that over time builds credibility.
So, then when the next time comes around, we need X to do Y. Someone can go back and say, you know what? They were really truthful about this, I trust them. Like when your parents give you the credit card and you come back and you haven’t maxed out.
MATT: Just a thought. How many people were in the sort of membership discussion in this room earlier? This reminds me a little bit of a point someone brought up there that people like in sort of a membership relationship there’s maybe a willingness to say to say what you’re going to be working on as an organization. Here’s the plan or the question that we’re investigating. And I wonder if some of these ideas might connect in that way? Be more transparent about what you’re going to be working on. Oh, you need my fingerprint for that. There we go.
It gives sorry. I just lost my train of thought. But you yes. By become more transparent about some of those things you can start to build a deeper relationship with people. Which then creates kind of a feedback loop. Like relationships with your readers and understand what they love and don’t love about what you’re making and improve from there.
AUDIENCE: I have one.
MATT: Sure, of course. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: In a former life I was a touring musician. And I think some of those growing pains. I see things a lot through that lens. And I think ten years ago we couldn’t have imagined something like Kickstarter or Patreon or Bandcamp, ways to self fund. And I think those platforms at least in the music industry have kind of legitimatized that ask. You’re not a sell out. It’s not frowned upon. They present that value add in a nice way. And we’re missing that, you know, in our industry. That like a trusted platform that you can request through. That it is, you know, universally understood that, you know, this is a reasonable request. And this is the value add from it. Just think about that all the time, you know? That we just haven’t caught up to that.
MATT: Right? So, we are out of time. Sadly.
SARA: Oh, no, I didn’t
MATT: You’re not wearing the same outfit?
[ Laughter ]
That one’s long gone.
MATT: All right, well, thank you all for joining us. I thought that was a really great discussion. We are happy to hang around afterward if you want to talk more about these topics.
SARA: We have extras.
MATT: We have extra printed canvass if you want to take one or two to take with you. The Etherpad link has digital versions of our slides and this canvas. And we would love to have any feedback you have about it. And, yeah, thank you so much.
[ Applause ]