Growth in digital subscriptions is considered key to a newspaper’s successful business model. Boone Newspapers Inc., which owns five newspapers in Virginia, was recently selected to participate in Google News Initiative’s Digital Growth Program Subscriptions Lab. (Stock Image)

Boone Newspapers Inc. is one of five North American news organizations selected to participate in Google News Initiative’s newest program, an international project designed to teach news organizations how to develop successful digital subscription strategies.

Steve Stewart, vice president of Boone Newspaper Inc.’s East Coast Group, which owns The Farmville Herald, The Charlotte Gazette, The Kenbridge-Victoria Gazette, Suffolk News-Herald and The Tidewater News, said he was overjoyed to have been selected after a competitive application process.

Google News Initiative, in partnership with FTI Consulting, Local Media Association and the World Association of News Publishers, kicked off the Digital Growth Program Subscriptions Lab with three groups of news organizations in North and South America last week.

Participating news operations will undergo 10 weeks of intense digital growth training, where they will be able to interact with each other and receive personalized support and coaching from all four of the program’s partners.

“All the smart people in our industry say that for newspapers to remain viable, we’re going to have to generally be successful in selling digital subscriptions,” said Stewart, who is also past president of the Virginia Press Association board.

As advertising continues to be disrupted going forward as a result of the pandemic, Stewart said that digital subscription revenue will be a critical portion of Boone’s total revenue plan.

“We are super excited about what it can do for our own organization, our affiliates and we have a high interest in what it can do for our Virginia affiliates,” he said. “We want to take this very small group of cohorts and figure out something and share with all newspapers. We will absolutely be an open book.”

Ben Monnie, director of global news partnerships solutions at Google, said in a press release that since launching Google News Initiative, their “driving focus has been to support the financial sustainability of organizations creating original quality journalism.”

“We’ve introduced several labs in partnership with industry experts to help news organizations find success with reader revenue,” Monnie said. “We’re excited to extend those learnings through this accelerated program, conducted as part of our GNI Digital Growth Program.”

Stewart is hopeful that the program will guide them in developing a strong business model based on growth in digital subscriptions.

Stewart has observed the evolution of the digital trend from its beginning and noted that readers and advertisers in small, rural communities have begun to embrace digital.

One of the fundamental challenges is with adults under the age of 50, who he said have become accustomed to not being asked to pay for news they read online.

“We made a terrible strategic decision back in the early 90s when the internet broke through…giving away our content. It was a shiny new toy,” he said. “We just assumed the business model would work the same way that print would. We obviously did not understand the tsunami that was coming.”

Convincing younger news consumers of the value of local journalism will be a difficult task, Stewart said, as will finding appropriate digital price points that will work for various audiences.

“Obviously, that is going to be very different between The New York Times versus the Farmville Herald,” he said. “A rate that works for The New York Times might not work for the Farmville Herald. That does not necessarily mean that the rate is proportional to community size.”

While national and international news is more of a commodity for larger papers than local news, Stewart said, readers at a smaller newspaper may be willing to pay the same for local news that readers of larger papers do for national or international news.

Stewart relishes the challenge of finding digital subscribers and making a strong case for why Boone’s newspapers deserve their support.

“We’ve been working hard for several years to sell digital with modest success,” he said.

The key will be quickly building that up as part of the company’s overall revenue. Digital subscription revenue should be about 2.5 times newsroom labor expense, Stewart said, based on the Digital Subscriptions Playbook developed in 2019 by FTI Consulting, Google News Initiative and Local Media Association.

“People will pay you for quality journalism. We, as community newspapers, have to be just as focused on our content being more relevant and indispensable,” he said. “Our newsrooms are smaller, just like all news organizations. We’ve got to do it better.”

Article by Virginia Press Association