What’s your why? Share it with your audience to sustain your future.
Why do we do it?
Why do we work in a highly unstable career with no job security? Why do we cover stories so unimaginably terrible that sometimes all that’s left for us to do at the end of the day is cry? Why do we endure a high-pressure, fast-paced environment with little pay while at the same time dealing with a constant barrage of criticism from those we are trying to serve? (You’ve unfortunately probably heard some of this before: you’re a liberal rag; you’re in Politician X’s pocket; have you EVER even HEARD of a copy editor?)
We do it because we care.
We do it because our passion for our communities runs deep in our veins. We do it because we feel a responsibility to tell our neighbors’ stories, keep our cities safe and hold our governments accountable.
We do it because we can’t imagine doing anything else.
Historically, we haven’t been very good at telling the story of our why. But it’s one that is key to sustaining local journalism for years to come.
As the news industry continues to face more layoffs, I’ve heard my colleagues ask, “So what can we do? How can we help ensure the future of our news organization?”
And more specifically, “How can I help save my job?”
The hard fact of the matter is digital advertising revenue (on our local .com sites) has not kept up with its print predecessor. And we haven’t quite figured out the business model to sustain community journalism as print circulation continues to decline. Journalists I know, myself included, have long felt the revenue side of the business was one over which we had little to no control. (Talk about stressful.)
But when we started thinking about it — really thinking about it — the answer was clear: Gone are the days we can give away our content for free. We need to stop apologizing for asking readers to support us.
In our newsroom, some math showed us a silver lining.
Noodling around on a notepad, Coloradoan Executive Editor Eric Larsen and I started doing some long division. How many digital-only subscribers (paying full price) would we need to cover our newsroom expenses? I’m talking about pens, computers, public records fees, travel, the salaries of our 16 journalists.
Now, we had to keep in mind that we offer some great deals for new subscribers, so not all of them are paying full price. So, where did we land? If we could hit 20,000 digital-only subscribers by the end of 2020, we theoretically should be able to sustain local journalism in Northern Colorado for years to come.
Getting the newsroom involved
We were only about 12,000 digital subscribers away from that goal when our pens hit the notepad that day. Today, we still have about 9,000 to go.
But we have made significant gains — all by sharing that “simple” math with our staff. It was a goal everyone could get behind. It was attainable. And it was giving us the power to control our own future.
Now, we can’t just ask our readers to support faceless journalists behind computers with their hard-earned money. We knew we had to show them, more than ever before, who we are and why we are so passionate about our work. We have to build their trust.
So I asked our journalists: What’s your why? Tell me in two sentences or less.
Paired with some new headshots, I took those statements and made personalized subscription asks for everyone in our newsroom.
Some focused on our role in democracy.
Some on the quirks and perks of being a journalist.
And others on how we love to tell stories.
Each is accompanied by a customized URL so we can track our success and our journalists can track the direct monetary impact of their work.
These “why” statements now accompany every story we write. It’s been about three months since we first started implementing this strategy. In that time, they’ve directly driven about 2,000 visits to our order pages and roughly 50 new subscriptions.
That’s the direct impact. We also know that the indirect impact has been huge.
Now, for the first time in history, we have more digital subscribers than daily print subscribers and our total paid audience is trending upward.
We’ve also shared our goal of 20,000 digital subscribers with our community, and we’ve committed to sharing our progress toward that goal publicly. To do so, I created an additional embed we update every month showing our progress.
I know as journalists, the thought of marketing and sales can sometimes make us uneasy. But we must embrace it. If we don’t advocate for our work and shout from the rooftops that it’s worth paying for, who will?
We have to fight for our future.
So what’s your why? And are you willing to share that story with your audience?
Jennifer Hefty is a regional content strategist for the Fort Collins Coloradoan, Sioux Falls Argus-Leader and St. Cloud Times, part of the USA TODAY NETWORK.
Trusting News, staffed by Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh, is designed to demystify the issue of trust in journalism. We research how people decide what news is credible, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We’re funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the American Press Institute, Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation.