This is part of a series about Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge winners in North America and how they’re putting funding to work developing sustainable business models, diversifying revenue streams, and increasing audience engagement. Watch the webinar from Oct. 28, which explores lessons from three local media innovation projects — #ThisisTucson, VTDigger, and MuckRock — that evolve direct relationships with news consumers into direct contributions
By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
A standalone product from the Arizona Daily Star has captured and monetized a millennial audience using a membership model launched right before COVID-19 shut down Tucson.
#ThisIsTucson started in 2016 after General Manager Irene McKisson, Product Manager Becky Pallack and Executive Editor Jill Jorden Spitz were tasked with finding younger readers. The free-to-access digital vertical has since gained a steady yet loyal following otherwise missing from the Arizona Daily Star print audience, which was 63 years old, on average, when the project started.
Monthly engaged users exceed 200,000 readers, according to McKisson, who leveraged that audience into a membership program launched March 11 after more than a year of anticipation.
“Literally four days later, we all had to leave the office because COVID was spreading in Tucson,” said McKisson, who received support to test, launch and manage the membership program from a Google News Initiative North American Innovation Challenge grant.
Fortunately, COVID-19 didn’t stop loyal fans of #ThisIsTucson from buying in, so to speak: 285 members have signed up since March, most paying about $10 a month.
Many of the paid members have no idea the website is associated with the Arizona Daily Star, and that’s by design, McKisson said. The typical user mirrors the prototypical #ThisIsTucson reader, which was established when the website first launched.
Catering to prototypical user
As part of the initial launch of this new digital vertical, McKisson and the team conducted surveys and reader interviews to identify young Tucson residents’ needs and target audience. They learned that most younger Tucsonans weren’t reading the Daily Star, especially older millennial women who couldn’t find the information they needed on the newspaper’s website, Tucson.com.
“We learned they felt really strongly engaged to this place and wanted to connect with other people in their neighborhoods and the city,” McKisson said.
Enter “Jessica,” a persona modeled after prototypical target users. When she was created, Jessica was a 31-year-old mom with a young family and a job that didn’t dominate her life. McKisson said they picked “Jessica” because it was the most popular name in 1984, the year this reader persona was born.
She’s middle class, outdoorsy, and looking for something to do in Tucson. And more importantly, for the business side, Jessica controls her family’s budget, as do 83% of millennial-age moms, according to McKisson.
“She’s the family planner, so she decides how the money is spent and when,” McKisson said. “She’s also looking at the kid’s education and trying to figure out what school they are going to go to.”
She also spends more time on Facebook and Instagram versus Twitter, so #ThisIsTucson caters its audience outreach efforts to the platforms that Jessica is more likely to use.
“We don’t put any effort into Twitter because we know our audience isn’t there,” McKisson said.
When COVID-19 shut down events in Tucson, McKisson said the reader persona project enabled #ThisIsTucson to pivot from events to pandemic-related information quickly — even if that meant going newsier than originally intended.
Creative ad models
All of the revenue coming into #ThisIsTucson is sold, built, and tracked separately from the core product, even if clients package advertisements across multiple verticals. Much of the sales pre-pandemic came from premium listings and sponsored placements into event listings. Sales also include social media surfaces such as Instagram Stories.
McKisson said she was reluctant to rely on digital advertising as the only revenue stream for #ThisIsTucson because a huge percentage of millennials use ad-blocking software to thwart targeted campaigns. So the team brainstormed nontraditional products that might overcome this challenge. Despite having an editorial background and no sales experience, McKisson had to extend her innovation to the business side of #ThisIsTucson.
Fortunately, she said, events and merchandising have combined with traditional ads and membership to create multiple revenue streams. For example, the website hosted a school and camp fair to help Tucson parents decide where to enroll their children. They also sell #ThisIsTucson-branded swag, which McKisson said fans “shriek” over.
In fact, genuine excitement is what sparked her idea for a membership model. She said news organizations should rethink how they incentivize their sales staff and define success because it may stifle sales creativity.
“On the ad side, so much emphasis on pay structure is being rewarded for selling — you can’t be innovative — so it filters out people who could be innovative because you’re not rewarded for that kind of work. Whereas, in the newsroom, you’re 100 percent rewarded for that kind of work.”
As an added challenge, the Arizona Daily Star technically has two owners: Gannett and Lee Enterprises. So that means #ThisIsTucson is often competing with corporate sales initiatives and priorities from two companies instead of one. A digital vertical may represent “small fish compared to all the other competing priorities,” said McKisson, who isn’t afraid to get involved in helping push a sale over the edge.
In fact, McKisson estimates she has participated in 30 to 40 sales calls to assist the business side of the operation. She said her editorial background works to her advantage when convincing potential clients to buy into a unique product such as #ThisIsTucson.
“When you have an unusual product, you need an expert to sell it to a skeptical person,” she said.
Success and next steps
The website has earned the website $10,000 per month in digital advertising revenue, mostly sustaining the operation separately from the Daily Star. In fact, the operation was close to breaking even pre-pandemic, McKisson said.
But as event listings dried up during quarantine, the team had to dive deeper into the membership model to sustain. McKisson has learned that most members started as newsletter subscribers who appreciated the resources #ThisIsTucson provided.
They were also mostly new to Tucson, so they’re starting a newcomers newsletter in November, delivering an eight-part introduction to the city for those who sign up. Information obtained from members when they signed up helped make this new product possible, McKisson said.
“Without the membership program, I don’t think we’d have gotten that deep because we wouldn’t have known,” she said.
McKisson also oversees a Spanish-language vertical and the sports department, and she’s contemplating new audience-focused monetization strategies for both. The Arizona Daily Star is also considering what workflow improvements from #ThisIsTucson could move to Tucson.com.
“We’re trying to make the newspaper side more digital-first,” McKisson said.