When newspaper editors decide to “take the wire” instead of assigning staff to report a story, some see it as a compromise that could discourage regular readers.

It turns out that readers don’t care at all.

A first-of-its-kind analysis using data from Northwestern University’s Medill Subscriber Engagement Index reveals that wireline services and syndicated content can help build reading habits and retain subscribers among light readers and very light. Even for the most ardent and heavy readers, the thread’s content has a neutral, not a negative effect.

“Syndicated content is important for increasing engagement,” said Edward Malthouse, research director at Northwestern’s Medill Spiegel Research Center and Erastus Otis Haven Professor of Integrated Marketing Communications. “Any story is a good story if you can get me to read it.”

Teacher. Edward C. Malthouse of Medill.

The index, launched last year, allows participating media outlets to track their digital subscribers. It identifies content that correlates with retention and identifies customers most at risk of dropping their subscriptions.

This latest analysis took into account tens of millions of page views by digital subscribers of two participating newspapers over 23 months, from January 1, 2020 to November 30, 2021.

At first glance, the data seemed to show that wireline content was not associated with retention or regularity, or had negative associations, Malthouse explained. The early results aligned with the conventional wisdom that readers place greater value on original news accounts than on widely available and unmarked stories.

However, a closer look at the data showed the surprising benefit of wireline stories in retaining digital readers who rarely use their subscriptions. News organizations need to reach those under-engaged subscribers before canceling, and the feed’s content can help, Malthouse said. “It’s magic for light readers.”

The latest findings were “obviously music to our ears,” said Jim Kennedy, senior vice president of strategy and corporate development at The Associated Press, a leading news service. “We’ve always felt that local news readers were preoccupied with the full gamut of news…global, national, business, sports, entertainment. You force them to look elsewhere if you don’t manage any of this.

‘Zombies’ Loom Large

Keeping readers engaged is a mission critical to news outlets whose paying subscribers include so-called “zombies” who use their subscriptions less than once a month.

An analysis of Spiegel Center data last year found that 49% of digital subscribers did not visit the websites they had paid for even once every 30 days. Infrequent web visits were particularly common among people who combined print and digital subscriptions, but a fifth of digital-only subscribers were also “zombies”. No one knows how long these disengaged readers will continue to pay for local news when they rarely tune in.

Kennedy suggested the latest research could shed light on how to re-engage “zombies.” “Why not give your audience the full spectrum of what you can offer?” Kennedy asked. “The ‘zombies’ might become more active readers if you could give them some of this information.”

Digging into the Index data, Medill’s Malthouse found that many participating newspapers did not use much AP content and therefore focused primarily on current events, with sports coverage. They tend to post little on niche topics like music, science, travel, and less popular sports like ice hockey.

AP has found that readers do indeed leave their local news sites in search of related content elsewhere, Kennedy said, such as when professional football fans read about their local team in local media and then read about the rest. of the NFL elsewhere. “Why not give it to them? ” He asked.

Medill’s data analysis indicates that increasing readership of AP Business Stories has the greatest potential to reduce churn among subscribers. AP sports, community and health stories have the same effect, although to a lesser extent, according to the analysis.

Even so, figuring out which feed stories will help keep readers engaged is still part of the art as well as the science. “If someone isn’t interested in business, showing them a bunch of AP business stories isn’t going to help,” Malthouse said. “You want to avoid information overload.”

News organizations should combine sound editorial judgment with automated recommendation systems that direct readers to stories relevant to their personal interests, he said. “You want to detect passion points for this reader. Make it easy for me to find the content I want.

At the same time, Malthouse said, “We shouldn’t create echo chambers by only showing political stories at one end of the spectrum.”

At the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Rick Edmonds said the latest findings were “not so surprising” given the strong and wide coverage available through telegraph and syndicated reports.

“AP sometimes gets the bad press that they are sort of the safety net. That has long since ceased to be true,” said Edmonds, a media business analyst. “The quality of their coverage is really, really high. They have a well-deserved reputation for fairness and objectivity.

Rapidly growing Medill index

Medill’s Spiegel Research Center and the Local News Initiative oversee the index, with technical support from Glenview, Illinois-based Deeta Analytics. Mather Economics, an Atlanta-based company that handles metrics for news organizations, provides data for analysis in the index. Earlier this year, Google News Initiative provided a major donation to support the Index for at least the next two years. It is also supported by the Myrta J. Pulliam Charitable Trust and other Local News Initiative and Spiegel donors.

News organizations participating in the index have access to dashboards on a wide range of metrics, including retention rates, subscribers added, revenue per subscriber, frequency of news consumption, readership by topic , types of devices used, and in-market and out-of-market. – the readership of the market. The index also includes a strategic planning tool that uses current data to predict future results.

Attendance is currently free for local news outlets, and 52 were attending as of February 2022, according to Tim Franklin, a professor who leads the Local News Initiative, a project to make local news outlets financially stronger and more responsive to their communities. By the end of the first half of this year, Franklin expects to nearly triple the number of participating outlets to 150.

“We’ve been inundated with interest in the Medill Index since it went live last year,” said Franklin, who is senior associate dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News. “I think it reflects the value of this tool to local news outlets, and how critical reader revenue is now to sustaining these outlets. The Index is the right tool at the right time for the industry.

Medill is in the process of including local news agencies in the index, Franklin said. For more information, contact [email protected]

Image of article by Roman Kraft used under Unsplash License (Unsplash)