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July 27, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
Business Models

Two years in, the hyperlocal Worcester Sun questions whether Sunday print is still in its future

Other options include going nonprofit or launching a free, ad-supported site.

The Worcester Sun launched as a hyperlocal news site (and a competitor to the print-and-online Worcester Telegram & Gazette) two summers ago. It promised an interesting twist on the local online model — heavily paywalled, aiming to eventually launch a print weekly newspaper. Since then, many of its founding tenets have stayed the same, but there have also been surprises.

The Sun, covering the second-largest city in New England, is still tightly paywalled. Subscribers still pay $2 a week, whether they want a one-week subscription or a one-year subscription. Two digital editions of the Sun are now published each week, on Wednesdays and Sundays (up from just Sundays at launch). The ultimate goal, said Mark Henderson, the Sun’s president and cofounder, is to publish a digital edition seven days a week.

At launch, the Sun offered exactly zero free content other than a daily, comprehensive listing of obituaries from all Worcester-area funeral homes. Without a preview, it was still able to draw in subscribers — 50 percent of the people who subscribed at launch chose the long-term, most expensive option ($104 for a year) despite never having read a single article (recall that there was no free content at launch). After a while, though, “we had to get around the objection of, ‘I don’t know what you guys are about, I need to sample something,'” Henderson said. So the Sun began offering two free stories a week. That’s now been cut down to one.

“We were seeing that our free-to-reads could drive a bunch of traffic and, in the social space, would eclipse some of the other stuff we were doing,” Henderson said. Hence just one free story, four or so weeks after its original publication, with an email capture at the end. “If we do a Q&A with a civic or a business leader, that kind of thing has a shelf life.” The Sun also promotes just one story on Facebook — sometimes a free story, often a paywalled one — each day. Posting too much “fractures the audience,” Henderson said. He also theorizes (though he doesn’t have data to back it up) that Facebook’s algorithm is more likely to surface the Sun’s content if it’s posted less frequently.

The Sun’s email newsletter, which it sends twice a week on the same days that it publishes, has been surprisingly successful, Henderson said. “We treat our email delivery as a separate product. The teasers are written distinctly for a mobile consumptive audience. The open rates and returns have exceeded what we expected; we’re averaging about 14,000 opens a week.” The email newsletter and social media drive roughly equal percentages of traffic to the site, Henderson estimates, with direct traffic making up a remaining 10 percent.

Over the past two months, 50 percent of new subscribers “had never had contact with us before,” at least that the company knew of: They weren’t already on the email list and “there was no evidence that they were finding us on social,” Henderson said, or “at least on our radar in a way that we hadn’t been reaching them before.”

While things on the digital side have gone better than expected, finding a print partner has been more difficult than Henderson hoped it would be. “Based purely on the numbers and the opportunity, we thought that we would be able to find a strategic partner to help us launch a Sunday print product,” he said. “We’re still hopeful — we still think the numbers make sense — but we haven’t found the appetite for that so far.”

By numbers making sense, Henderson means that the Sun’s team thinks “Worcester is underperforming cities of its size when it comes to purchasing newspapers, enough that we could draw the conclusion that part of this is based on price.” (The single-copy price of both The Boston Globe and the Telegram & Gazette is $2.) “We think we can use our cost and price advantages to create a new product and fill in some of that gap. It could be profitable. Sunday print would act as a marketing vehicle for the rest of our digital products, and allow us to go from a niche digital play to a mass play.”

If a print product doesn’t end up working out, the Sun is considering other ways to get mass reach and grow faster. One path is becoming a nonprofit, something that local news sites like The Tulsa Frontier and Honolulu Civil Beat and have done in the recent past. If it goes that route, “we will still have to show a business plan that has us making money over time,” Henderson said.

The site could, as a nonprofit, move from subscription to a membership model. Or, rather than becoming a full-blown nonprofit, it could cover specific areas, like education and health, for other nonprofit outlets.

Going nonprofit would “require educating people in Worcester’s donor community about the importance of supporting quality local journalism as a way of building a vibrant city,” said Dan Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and an unpaid advisor to the Sun. “If that can’t be done, I’d consider going in the opposite direction of charging readers more in return for more journalism. Regardless of which route Mark ultimately takes, he has to establish the Sun as a vital news source that civically engaged residents can’t live without, rather than as a supplement to the media that they’re already using.”

There’s another option, too: a free, ad-supported product. “We haven’t built a direct competitor in the marketplace as far as gaining a mass audience,” Henderson said. “That’s something we’re talking about right now. It would be a news product that could really go after the coverage news, and be disruptive in that space.”

It’s good to have choices, Henderson said. And despite the fact that print may not end up being in the Sun’s future, he said he’s heartened by the response the site has gotten. “There were just a lot of people who said, ‘Whoa, whoa, it’s not going to work.’ We’ve been around long enough, and the market has changed, so that’s not something we hear a whole lot anymore.”

Stereograph of the Worcester Soldiers Monument by Boston Public Library used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 27, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
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