5 lessons from newspaper companies growing digital subscriptions


By Penny Riordan • LMA Director, Business Strategy and Partnerships

For most newspaper companies, growing digital subscriptions has been key to survival as the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically reduced advertising revenue.

Local Media Association members and constituents are no different, and at LMA’s Accelerate Local 2021 event, we assembled an all-star panel of five experts to share their successes in growing digital subscriptions.

Here are five valuable tips they offered:

1. Longer introductory offers lead to an increase in digital starts: Hearst Newspapers is on track to exceed 300,000 digital subscriptions by the end of 2021, which is three times the number of subscriptions the company had in 2019. How? The company grew its number of weekly starts through an increase in promotions, paywall optimizations, and a few other tactics.

One thing Hearst did to optimize the paywall was extend the duration of its introductory offer from 99 cents for 4 weeks to 99 cents for 12 weeks. Just by doing that, the company saw a two-fold increase in starts per day, according to Kelli Dakake, vice president of digital acquisition for Hearst newspapers.

This shows how Hearst Newspapers has grown its number of digital subscription starts in 2019, 2020, and what’s projected for 2021.

2. Subscriber-only emails help retain readers: At the Star Tribune in Minnesota, retaining customers once they subscribe has been a big focus, according to Toby Collodora, senior manager of engagement and retention.

What has worked well for the company are subscriber-only emails, which are emails sent out once a month from the editor of the newsroom. They include more background on a new initiative or topic, as well as a behind-the-scenes “meet the team” spotlight.

The newsletter contributed to a 4.4 percent improvement in retention across print and digital.

Retention is a key component of a successful subscriptions strategy at Star Tribune.

3. Create a #factsarentfree team. At the Record-Journal in Meriden, Conn., Publisher Liz White knew the company had to get everyone focused on digital subscriptions, so it formed a #factsarentfree team.

This team worked across departments to make growing digital subscriptions a little bit of everyone’s job. The newspaper has seen a 57% growth year-over-year in digital subscriptions.

The cross-departmental Facts Aren’t Free team at Record Journal focuses on subscriptions growth strategies.

4. Communicating the value of a subscription to your readers. The Buffalo News had its 140-year anniversary in 2020 and used that milestone to connect its story to the value of subscribing. The company developed campaigns targeted to readers that asked things like “are you making the most out of your subscription?” and “are you taking advantage of our E-Edition?”

The newsroom also sends out subscriber-only emails that have a 30-day average open rate of 40%. As a result of these efforts and others, digital subscriber revenue is up 147% year over year, according to Brian Connolly, the vice president of business development for the Buffalo News.

A focus on value-based subscription offers led to significant revenue gains for The Buffalo News.

5. Make the checkout experience as seamless as possible. At The Seattle Times, the paywall is the landing page for subscription offers, and is identical on desktop and mobile. The Times has focused in the last year on reviewing the checkout flow experience to reduce the number of steps and make it as simple as possible, said Curtis Huber, senior director of circulation and audience revenue.

The Times also saw huge conversions from one-day sales that also show a countdown for how many hours are left on the offer. One-day sales in September and October brought in more than 1,000 and 2,000 subscription starts, respectively.

The Seattle Times has worked to make the checkout for subscribers fast and easy.


Looking for more from LMA’s Accelerate Local 2021? Check out our session summary on the Journalism for Philanthropy workshop – 5 questions to address to prepare for a funder pitch – and view presentations from the event.