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March 28, 2018, 9:16 a.m.
Business Models

Facebook starts training 14 metro newsrooms this week. What will they learn?

“We tested this, it tanked. You tested this, it worked. Why?”

This week marks the launch of Facebook’s Local News Subscriptions Accelerator, which is giving 14 metro newsrooms training and advice over a period of three months to help them improve their digital subscription businesses. (The participating newspapers: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post, the Miami Herald, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Omaha World-Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Tennessean, Newsday, and Advance Local.)

Why Facebook is doing this? The company says it’s “working with publishers to figure out what the future of digital journalism looks like and see opportunities to invest in programs and projects committed to quality journalism.” Facebook was involved in choosing the 14 newsrooms that would be included in the program and says it “considered a number of factors to ensure the group was evenly matched to both learn from and teach others.” The ultimate goal is to create a playbook for local news publishers, with findings and case studies to be distributed by the Lenfest Institute.

The curriculum was developed by Tim Griggs, who was formerly publisher of The Texas Tribune and a digital product and strategy executive at The New York Times, and who now works as a digital media consultant (here’s one example of work he’s done). I talked with him about what’s in the training and why this isn’t just about Facebook.

Laura Hazard Owen: What was the original idea here and how is the program — which Facebook is describing as a $3 million, three-month initiative — going to work?

Tim Griggs: Facebook wanted to design a bootcamp of sorts, something relatively short but pretty dense, that would help metro publishers take a big step forward with their digital subscription businesses. I tried to create something that’s part collaboration among these peers and part sharing best practices from folks in the field. It is 12 weeks from start to finish, with in-person sessions, webinars focused on particular topics, and coaching calls in between.

Owen: What things will the curriculum be focusing on?

Griggs: This is all subject to change — I don’t want it to be so forced that it can’t be flexible if participant needs come up. One challenge is the leveling: We’ll have folks in the room who have been doing this for some time and had some really terrific success, and others who just launched a digital subscription in the fall, in one case, and another who relaunched in January. There’s a big range of skills and capacities and capabilities, and trying to get the level right is a little challenging.

But the whole program is focused on acquisition rather than retention. The idea is that the first session will be focused on the big picture, with a heavy emphasis on data-driven decision making, testing and optimization, propensity modeling and scoring, and maximizing your own channels — how to use your site and your email products. The second session will be more focused on engagement strategies and external acquisition strategies, with Facebook being a big part of that but also referral, third-party, and all the ways off your own platform you can identify prospects, build loyalty, and convert those into paying subscribers. The third session will be pulling it all together: creative execution, brand and marketing positioning, product managing, ideal team structures, things like that.

Owen: Is the curriculum mostly Facebook and a little other stuff, or mostly other stuff and a little Facebook? Why did Facebook want to do this?

Griggs: It’s more the latter. The idea here was that Facebook had been hearing from local publishers that this is an area where they could use some outside perspective and collaboration and so on. Being a really good digital subscription company is complicated and involves so many factors — Facebook is one part of that, but it goes beyond Facebook.

Owen: What do you expect the biggest common challenges to be?

Griggs: I suspect, just from my own work in this space, that some of the common challenges are around data: How do we collect the right kinds of data, take action on that data, how do we use data to make smarter decisions about how we drive digital subscription? That will be one set of common challenges. There’s also whole enterprise alignment: How do we make sure that we’re all rowing in the same direction? Some newsrooms are still playing the scale game, and you’ve got to reorient them around digital subscriptions and get newsrooms, marketing, product, audience development, tech, advertising, everyone working together toward a common set of goals, and then holding each other accountable to those goals.

One of the webinars is going to be on that question of newsroom involvement — how do you reorient the newsroom in a way that is good for the journalism and good for driving loyalty and driving subscribers?

Owen: How are the participants going to bring what they learn back to their newsrooms and incorporate it there, and how are you going to measure the success of this program?

Griggs: Well, nothing quite like this has ever been done, certainly nothing sponsored by Facebook. It’s a pilot, and it’ll be interesting to see how it work both from Facebook’s perspective and also: Is this a good way to connect people and share best practices? The other thing is, if you’ve been to industry events before, you know that you get as much or more from peers than from any “expert” standing in front of a room. A lot of these folks know each other already, but as folks who are not in competitive situations at all, how can we help them learn from each other. We’re connecting them to each other in small workshop settings, there’s a Slack group dedicated to this. I suspect that might be the highlight for folks: “We tested this, it tanked. You tested this, it worked. Why?”

When we first launched the paywall at The New York Times, folks all over the world came in asking what we had done and why it had worked so well. They would then either say, “Well, that’s The New York Times and that doesn’t apply to us,” or “That’s great, let’s go back and try and replicate that without the resources and experience to do it.”

Neither of those approaches worked. What did work was taking pieces of [the Times’ strategy] that were successful, applying it to their own market conditions, and sharing what was working. Not every single thing that you put in a program like this is going to be applicable to every publisher, but the hope is that it prompts some new ideas.

Photo by Derek Bruff used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 28, 2018, 9:16 a.m.
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