What Damon Kiesow has learned about reader revenue and the strategies he thinks will work for publishers


Damon Kiesow, the Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing at the Missouri School of Journalism, has studied and written deeply about reader revenue.

As the industry works to generate more digital subscription revenues, we caught up with Kiesow to learn more about his past work in this space and to learn about a new study he is working on.

First, tell us about your new-ish role as a Knight Chair at the University of Missouri?

I joined the faculty at Mizzou in August with the newly updated title of “Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing.” The chair was originally endowed in 1997 by the Knight Foundation and the University of Missouri to further the study and practice of newsroom editing. Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Jacqui Banaszynski held the position for many years. When it opened up in 2017, Dean David Kurpius worked to rename and restructure the role a bit, specifically adding and highlighting “digital” as a key focus.

So, my day-to-day is a mix of teaching, studying digital strategy, product management and working with student journalists and faculty editors. We have five community newsrooms and two creative agencies staffed by students (including the Columbia Missourian, KBIA/NPR and KOMU/NBC), so there are a lot of moving parts. I also spend a fair amount of time consulting with and visiting other newsrooms and attending and speaking at industry events.

We read recently about a study you are embarking on to understand why readers don’t pay for news. Tell us a little about the study and what you are trying to understand?

Broadly speaking, the industry has placed its bets on promotion and price to drive subscription programs. But we have generally not thought enough about the perceived value, usability and user experience of our websites.

Journalism is a fairly unique product and understanding why and how readers value it is complex. Merely consuming the news does not magically translate into a willingness to pay for it. But, digital does suffer in comparison to print on that score.

So the question we are asking, what causes readers to perceive digital news as being “less valuable” than printed news? And can we fix that?

Our research will look for characteristics that differ between print and digital formats that contribute to engagement, comprehension and ultimately a willingness to pay for the news.

A quick glance at a typical newspaper and its website and a few distinctions are apparent: Print is an edition so you know when you are “done” reading it, it has physical sections that demarcate categories of content, it has a broad canvas that allows flexibility in design and provides clear signals as to which stories are important and which are related to one another by topic or theme. Digital has few or none of those signals and we hypothesize that disparity makes reading and understanding the news more difficult in digital formats.

If we discover this is a real effect, we would then experiment with elements of website design and provide recommendations and best practices that could be used to increase engagement, trust, understanding and willingness to subscribe.

The Times, The Post, The Globe are clearly having success with reader revenue. What’s working for them?

Without painting too broad a brush, success is typically the result of investment, experimentation, and attention to data and detail over time. In the case of your three examples, two are privately owned, and the Times is unique. That has given them some breathing room to experiment. Each have had failures (TimesSelect circa 2005) but they have learned and reinvested.

What do you think this looks like for the mid-metros and even the smaller community papers?

This is something I discussed at length in a white paper I wrote for the American Press Institute last fall. (What it takes to shift a news organization to reader revenue).

The keys to success are: Improving your data collection and analysis, making reader revenue the top objective, providing a better user experience, testing and measuring at every step and establishing a reader-first culture. The API report is 16 pages long, so clearly there are more details in there worth digging into.

Of course mid-sized metros and smaller papers don’t have the resources of the New York Times, but they can be as smart. And that really just means listening to readers, building better products and letting the data inform your decisions. Your first attempt may fail (or at least underperform) but your success rate will improve if you are making informed guesses – as opposed to relying entirely on what worked for print 20 years ago.

From a newsroom perspective, what has to happen to support a successful reader revenue strategy?

This is actually a key, and again something we don’t talk about enough. But it is the topic of a panel I am moderating at Mega-Conference in Las Vegas next month. For starters, without a strong newsroom producing quality journalism, there is no ‘product’ to sell to readers. But beyond that, the newsroom’s incentives need to be aligned with the reader revenue business. That means – for instance – using engagement metrics not raw pageviews as reporter or departmental goals. And it means understanding what types of stories are driving readers to subscribe. That does not mean pandering to the audience, but it means recognizing what your most loyal and valuable readers find worth paying for.

Do you believe that experiments with paywalling will be critical — i.e. membership, paid newsletters — and do you like those other models?

Experiments like BoiseDev’s “timewall” are necessary. They offer members “read it first” early access, but every article is eventually available to all readers. That model could easily be extended to other newsrooms and products such as email newsletters. And within a few years, you will see more organizations adopting similarly diverse offerings. But each subscription program will be unique, tailored to its community and to the organization’s own strengths and weaknesses.

And we should be placing smart bets on anything that looks to have a positive return on investment in this space. But whatever the model, it should not be launched without talking to readers, having a business plan and understanding the technology and staff required to support it. And six or nine months in, if the audience or revenue numbers are not on target, either adjust your approach or move onto the next idea.

Who’s doing something in reader revenue that’s got you excited?

Honestly what I like the most is seeing organizations working to be more reader-focused and paying attention to the basic blocking and tackling of a subscription program.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We are always looking for hear from and work with newsrooms, product and audience development teams to help inform the teaching and research at Mizzou and to provide what support we can to people working on these really important challenges. My email is always open: kiesowd@missouri.edu