"I've been arguing for a long time that we will be saved as an institution by bearing down on quality, quality, quality. Just do the most deeply reported, beautifully written, carefully edited, fact-checked, copyedited, and beautifully designed stories — and the reader will come. They want to be supportive and they want access. And it turns out to be true. Thank God for it."
That comes from a NiemanLab story
this week about The Atlantic adding 36,000 new subscribers in the last four weeks, according to a staff email from editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg
. The surge happened, "even as we lifted paywall restrictions on our coronavirus coverage," Goldberg wrote. (There has been a separate discussion taking place whether publishers should be "noble" and lift any paywalls on their coronavirus reporting or treat it like any other special reporting they do and charge accordingly. Poynter has a column strongly promoting the latter here
I emailed Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, a Financial Times company, yesterday to ask how their work has been going. His response, in respect to their focus, lined up with Goldberg's.
"In terms of business, we're very focused on our core news coverage right now, which feeds our primary revenue stream of subscriptions," Fink wrote. "We've had huge audience engagement in the places where we've been able to tell the story of the pandemic in a way that helps our readers do their jobs better. As a specialist B2B publisher, that's our mission and our readers are showing us when we hit the bulls-eye."
Here are some reasons for these readership surges:
Paywalls gave The Atlantic a bump. The Atlantic relaunched its metered paywall in September. Readers get five free articles per month and then must choose an annual subscription option: $49.99 for digital access, $59.99 for digital and a print subscription, or $100 for a "premium" option. (About a third of the 36,000 took digital and print.)
Add more coverage to an existing vertical.
At Money-Media, their news service Agenda
serves boards of directors. They launched a weekly pop-up newsletter to augment their coverage of Covid-19. "This additional newsletter has nearly doubled overall readership for the past two weeks in a row!," Fink wrote.
Create a new product. Money-Media recently launched Health Payer Specialist, targeting health insurance carriers—many of whom are paying the bills for Covid-19 medical treatment. "On March 3, we announced that our free beta test was ending at the end of the month," Fink wrote. "The next week, everything seemed to change overnight and the pandemic was suddenly a real thing. We thought this was going to scupper our product launch, but we actually saw amazing results. We brought on 20+ corporate licenses during the month of March. Seven of the 25 largest health insurance carriers subscribed, along with the country's largest pharmacy, and the largest group benefits broker. Frankly, it's been an inspiration at the exact time we needed it."
Be ambitious. From NiemanLab: "Goldberg said it's the magazine's 'most ambitious journalism' that has been disproportionately converting readers into subscribers." One popular writer said that editors told him to forget 800-word updates and focus on taking "the biggest possible swing." The Atlantic's tracking of state-by-state coronavirus numbers grew out of work by reporters Rob Meyer and Alexis Madrigal. "The ambitious approach has made The Atlantic's coronavirus journalism distinctive and extended their coverage's digital shelf life..."
Ask. The Atlantic did drop their paywall for some of their coronavirus coverage—including a piece called "How the Pandemic Will End"—but they are still running "support this vital reporting" prompts with a subscription offer on each page.
Make the "free" special. "We've prioritized free access to the stories that can help people make decisions that keep them safe, physically and mentally, as well the stories holding officials accountable for failures related to the virus," said Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic.
Design still matters. Goldberg called their redesign "the most dramatic new look for our magazine in its 162-year history," and subscribers have credited it.
Put it all together. Ambition, new content and products, redesign, paywall architecture, and new systems of "high-touch copyediting and fact-checking" on digital stories.
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…