What the Media Insight Project tells publishers about modern news audiences

Recent research by the American Press Institute, as part of the Media Insight Project, will help publishers understand news consumers better.

That research is the topic of a talk that Jeff Sonderman, deputy executive director, American Press Institute, will give at this week’s Mega Conference in Las Vegas.

We caught up with Sonderman to learn more about the research, reader revenue strategies and to learn what’s happening today at API.

Tell us about the high-level takeaways from the research you have done with the Media Insight Project?

News consumers have more, seemingly infinite, choices and control today. And as a result their behaviors have changed rapidly and their preferences have diverged. The publisher is left trying to make sense of it all — and that’s the central challenge that our various audience research studies have tried to solve.

We created the Media Insight Project to answer important, actionable questions for publishers about modern news audiences.

One of the most memorable principles we’ve established include that most Americans, of all ages, are now cross-platform, multi-source news consumers. People don’t have a single way, or even a favorite way, of getting news. They use digital and print. They use text, video and audio. All depending on what is convenient at a given moment or for a certain kind of information.

Another insight that runs through many of our studies is that social media has not replaced news publishers as the source of news. That is far too simplistic a claim. Most people do use social media. Most people do see news there (though they often weren’t intending to). But when people see important news on social media, they have very little trust in it initially, and their primary next step is to go directly to trusted news publishers and look for more information. Social media is important — a huge magnet of attention and an opportunity to reach new people — but it is neither the entire, the final, nor the preferred stage for news consumption.

Any key themes pop up on what makes consumers pay for news and how media companies can be more successful with reader revenue?

One essential fact is there are many different reasons people decide to pay for a news source. It would be a mistake to think that there is one reason, one primary reason, or even a single set of reasons that are common to every news consumer.

Our study titled “The Paths to Subscription” shows there are 9 different segments of consumers with very different motives for becoming a subscriber. We surveyed more than 4,000 people who had just purchased a subscription to one of 90 local newspapers all over the U.S. And we found many clear and distinct reasons for subscribing.

Some readers want access to a particular topic of your coverage. Some read a lot and want unlimited access. Some care about supporting First Amendment freedoms. Some like clipping coupons, or the routine of sitting down with a print paper. Some like to talk to friends about your news. There are different marketing tactics and value propositions that will motivate each of these groups to subscribe — the savvy publisher needs to speak to each group differently.

Also essential to know is that it takes new subscribers several months or even a year of using the product for free before they are ready to subscribe. The road to subscribing is a long one, and publishers need to understand the steps and nurture people along that path gradually.

What did you all learn about how consumers interact with the different platforms and what they want?

It can be natural for us as news publishers to look at all the platforms out there and see them through the lens of “news.” It’s important for us to recognize that in fact these are not solely or primarily “news platforms.” They are places people spend their time and attention, and many things happen there from games to gossip to humor, and sometimes news.

As a result, many consumers have fuzzy lines about what is “news” as opposed to adjacent categories like “information” or “content.” They certainly have little understanding of news vs. opinion. All of this is more reason for journalists to go back to basics and explain their underlying principles, frequently and openly. What does it mean, really, when you say you are reporting news? What principles and standards do you adhere to in producing a report? How do you choose stories to pursue? What outcomes are you seeking from producing the news? We have to talk about this because the term “news” cannot be relied upon to have a clear and consistent meaning to everyone.

How would you describe how news consumers are changing today?

One thing to keep in mind is that news consumers may be just as bewildered by the changes in news consumption as publishers are. They, too, have been thrust into a new game with new rules. Content from strange corners of the internet pops up everywhere. The individual has to evaluate competing claims and reports and make judgments about credibility. These are things they used to rely on a few mainstream media gatekeepers to filter and simplify.

One of our most recent studies, “Americans and the News Media,” showed that people understand very little about some common terms and practices of journalism. So, as journalists we can build our credibility and loyalty by better explaining ourselves to audiences and being their partners in navigating a noisy news environment.

Switching gears, are there any initiatives this year at API that you are particularly excited about?

API has just launched a new version of our unique news analytics platform Metrics for News. This is a program we have custom-developed to give publishers analytics data that enlightens their editorial decisions and business models. The newest version has added funnel-based metrics that tell you what kinds of content acquires and retains subscribers. We’ve also added a focus on analyzing the top strategic priorities for your business. And we’ve created dashboards that are each tailored to different roles (an author, a team editor, a manager, etc.). All of this is designed to put meaningful, understandable, actionable metrics in front of the right people.

API also has exciting methods to help publishers achieve innovative workplace culture, modern staff skills, and strategic initiative launches. We have a variety of ways to assess these conditions in your organization and to develop a plan and send outside advisors to help with your particular needs. All that starts with a conversation, just send an email to hello@pressinstitute.org and let us know you’re interested.

We also continue to build up free online resources to advise publishers in strategic best practices, including our Reader Revenue Toolkit and Better News. And the single best way to keep in touch with API and to get a daily infusion of the issues we are working on is to subscribe to our morning newsletter Need to Know.