How a midwestern newspaper chain pivoted to digital subscriptions

Forum Communications launched a metered paywall across all of its newspapers in 2019.

The last 15 years have not been kind to the local news industry, with thousands of newspapers either reducing staff or closing down entirely. But not all newspapers have been affected equally, and some of the hardest hit chains were owned by hedge funds and private equity firms that had no actual interest in investing in journalism.

Family-owned newspapers seemed to have fared better, and that’s the case for Forum Communications, a chain of newspapers and other media outlets spread throughout the Midwest. A few years ago, the company’s newspapers rolled out a digital subscription model, and so far it’s performing above expectations.

I recently interviewed Stephanie Schroeder, Forum’s Chief Digital Marketing Officer, about the gargantuan amount of work that went into this pivot and what strategies resulted in the most success.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hiring a marketing team

Forum is a family owned media company that’s been around since 1978. It owns newspapers across North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. A few years ago, several executives decided it was time for the company to seriously pursue a digital subscription strategy. “They weren't exactly sure where to begin,” said Stephanie. “And so they brought in a consultant who used to work at the New York Times, and she came in and said, ‘well, first off, where's your marketing department?’ And they all sort of looked around the room at each other and said, ‘well, we don't have one.’ And she's like, ‘well, that's step one.’ So they followed her advice and posted a role for a chief digital marketing officer, and that’s how I got hired.” 

Stephanie didn’t have a background in newspapers. Instead, she previously worked as a VP of marketing for a healthcare benefits company. “My previous role was all about selling a product to consumers, and this new job wasn’t all that different, it’s just that the product has changed. What I really like about [working for a newspaper company] is I find it a little bit more mission driven, a little bit more purposeful, and I can really get behind the ‘why’ of what we're doing. That's always really appealed to me.”

Stephanie’s first few months were spent getting a bearing on the company’s business and its web publishing infrastructure. “I would say the most challenging piece of it all was just figuring out the technology component of everything. We had these legacy systems, and then we needed to integrate that with all of these other systems that were newer -- the email platform, the paywall platform, and so many other pieces. We actually secured help from another consultant who used to work at NASA. He helped us draw out this integration map with all these lines flowing from one platform to another, and it just looks like this giant, messy web on a sheet of paper. And he looks up at all of us and he says, ‘this is complicated.’ And you just know if the guy from NASA thinks it's complicated, it's complicated.”

Debuting the paywall

Forum launched its paywall in July 2019 with the goal of reaching 10,000 paying subscribers across all the news sites in the first year. It piloted the first version at its Fargo, North Dakota newspaper. ”We didn't go live for everybody all at once because we really wanted to get confidence in how the technology was working. And then we gradually rolled it out to 100% of the audience on that particular site. And then beyond that, we had to create this incremental rollout plan for our other news sites. And that took another six months. So it required a year and a half of just implementation work.” 

Rather than calling it a digital subscription, Stephanie’s team pitched it as a membership. “We were giving people access to a lot of things that other people who weren’t subscribed wouldn't have access to — unlimited content access, a digital replica of our print paper, access to our historical archives, and even some member events.” Forum charges $100 a year or $9.99 a month for a digital subscription. Subscribing not only gets you access to your local newspaper, but also all the other publications under the company’s umbrella. 

So how is the paywall actually designed? “Currently we have a hard registration wall, which means anytime someone lands on an article, they will be asked to register for a free account. Once they register, they'll get an additional four articles. And once they've used up their fourth article in a 30-day period, they will be asked to subscribe and won't be able to keep reading until they do.” Utilizing a registration wall certainly creates some friction, but Forum allows social logins to speed up the process. “Our traffic has stayed steady and our registrations have skyrocketed, and we really believe that that benefits the reader too, because once we know their information, we're able to serve up more of the content that they're really interested in and just curate their experience a little better.”

Conversion strategies

Over the past two years, Stephanie’s team has monitored conversion data and made several adjustments to the customer journey. “When we launched, we set our meter at 10 free articles, but then we eventually decided that we needed to probably lower it to something closer to six free articles. We've also gotten a lot more strategic about how we deploy the paywall, experimenting with things that are just a little bit more dynamic. We try to determine if a visitor is more of a casual reader or a loyal one who comes back every single day. We also experiment with more content-specific messaging as well. We found that when you can really show the value of the content that you provide in your paywall messaging, you're more likely to convert than if you’re just using generic messages across the board.”

While most readers stick to their local newspaper, some do see the benefit of the bundled subscription across all Forum news sites. “I think that people aren't super interested necessarily in the hyper-local news of our other properties, but they are interested in the regional feature coverage. So we've actually honed in on a few different content types that we believe our readers will be really interested in regardless of their location — topics like healthcare, outdoors, weather, and hockey are things that really do well across the board.”

Newsletters are, by far, the highest converting channel. “We actually just recently got a little more sophisticated with our ability to track where our conversions are coming from. For a while, we were just sort of spray-and-pray, hoping that our strategy was leading to conversions. But now we can really see exactly where everybody's coming from, and when we looked at that data for the first time, we were stunned to see that 60% of our conversions come from our newsletters. That was a much higher number than we ever could have imagined.”

The paywall is less than two years old at this point, but Forum blew past its initial goal of 10,000 subscribers. “I think it's been more successful  than any of us would have imagined. Over the past year our communities have really shown us that they value community journalism and they don't want that to go away. They also recognize that the mechanism for delivery of that news is changing a little bit. We had the benefit of not being among the first media companies to really do this, so people are getting a little more accustomed to this subscription world and we're definitely benefiting from that.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.