By Emilie Lutostanski • Local News Resource Center
The global pandemic accelerated plans at Charleston’s The Post and Courier to expand its reach in South Carolina — in May, its leaders announced two local news operations in Greenville and Myrtle Beach will launch this summer.
“With COVID, we started seeing a faster decline in ad revenues,” said P.J. Browning, publisher of The Post and Courier. “We thought about how we’ve talked about this [expansion] for several years. So we went to the board and said, ‘This is the amount of advertising we think we’re going to lose, and by the way, you know that five-year plan of growing digital audience? We have a plan for Charleston, but here’s what we could go after with an investment.’”
The Greenville and Myrtle Beach communities are economically significant to the state, Browning said, and in the last year, company leaders met with local businesses in those areas and received numerous requests to expand coverage.
“It really fits as we look to become a statewide brand,” Browning said. “We do think there’s a void of local community news and we feel like that’s an opportunity for us to step in and really do some powerful reporting.”
Furthermore, web traffic and conversion rates on The Post and Courier website from Greenville and Myrtle Beach readers indicated strong prospects for consumer revenue. While Myrtle Beach is launching with a weekly newspaper and a digital presence, the Greenville news outlet is digital-only. Though advertising opportunities are available, both news branches are on a multi-year plan to be 100-percent supported by reader revenue.
“We’ve got a smaller audience in Greenville than we do, obviously, in our core market, but the percentage that converts to become paid [subscribers] of that smaller size is very promising,” said Mitch Pugh, executive editor.
Pugh said the conversion rate, or number of unique visitors who are paying subscribers, among Greenville site users is already at 1.7 percent — higher than the benchmark 1.5 percent conversion rate for market viability described to The Post and Courier in the Google News Initiative Subscriptions Lab.
“That tells us there is demand there, and we believe if we add more local news and more relevant news, we could see even better conversions than that, hopefully. In Myrtle Beach, we are indexing at about twice the close rate that we see with Charleston,” Pugh said.
Company leaders believe strongly that quality news produced locally in Greenville and Myrtle Beach is worth paying for, and they will amplify that local reporting to attract new subscribers. Chris Zoeller, chief revenue and marketing officer, said with investments in marketing and technology, The Post and Courier aims to gain stronger brand recognition and move users down the subscriber acquisition funnel — from being aware of the news offering, to recognizing its value, and finally paying to access content.
“We’re really going to focus in the first year or two to get people visiting our content, reading our content, and signing up for newsletters. We’ll be making sure everybody knows that we’re local, and that we’ve got reporters who live in those communities and are invested in those communities,” Zoeller said. “In addition, we’re making an investment in our tech stack … to make sure that we’re able to communicate with those readers more effectively, based on what they like to read, recommend content that matters to them, and to be able to share our value propositions more effectively.”
The Post and Courier is using some of the $75,000 it received through the Facebook Journalism Project COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund to update and integrate its customer relationship management and email service provider tools. It has also invested in hiring digitally savvy managing editors and four reporters for each of the new markets, as well as a newsletter editor.
“We are putting all of our newsletters that aren’t sales and special offers on one ESP platform, and then also, we are getting a dedicated resource to handle newsletters,” Pugh said. “That position needs to be both a marketing and a news role that really understands how to bring people down the funnel and how to get people signed up. It’s not just delivering the news. It’s also delivering the value proposition, helping readers understand that, and having more calls to action in newsletters, and those sorts of things.”
The Post and Courier spent significant resources in the last year learning how to rapidly advance its digital subscription strategy, including through the GNI Subscriptions Lab.
“Our knowledge gained out of the Subs Lab, in my opinion, has set us up to be able to have the confidence to do this, and more direction. It feels like that really propelled us into the things that we needed to focus on,” Browning said. “We’re over 10,000 now digital subs, and that’s a big celebration for us, but we really feel like we wouldn’t have been there yet without the knowledge that we received through the Lab.”
Pugh said among the learnings gained through the Subs Lab, the recipe for high-conversion content that propelled The Post and Courier beyond 10,000 paid subscribers will be applied in Greenville and Myrtle Beach.
“There are things … that everybody is covering that don’t have the same kind of value to paying readers as the kinds of things that do convert, which are original reporting, unique reporting done with great depth and care that really helps people understand, not just what happened but, what it means and how it’s going to affect how they live their lives,” Pugh said. “We will be writing about business, real estate, growth and development, and housing — those are things that people in any market that has any kind of growth whatsoever are concerned about and care deeply about.”
Browning and Pugh both said content is king, especially when produced by local reporters with deep investment in their communities. In June, The Post and Courier announced the hire of three staff members in Greenville: Managing Editor Ryan Gilchrest, Local Editor Eric Connor, and Reporter Anna B. Mitchell.
“We know it’s important to be of those communities, so our reporters need to be living, breathing shopping and even seeing our friends and neighbors in this community — to live in and be of Greenville, and live in and be of Myrtle Beach,” Pugh said.