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Nov. 22, 2016, 10:20 a.m.
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The Chronicle of Higher Education looks beyond site licenses to focus on individual subscribers

“The individuals who pay us every year are the readers who are going to count most in our world.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a pretty safe revenue stream: Colleges and universities around the country pay for site licenses (1,600 paid for licenses so far) ranging from a few hundred dollars into the five-figure range based on size and type of institution, giving anyone working or studying at those schools access to Chronicle stories. The 50-year-old publication, which also comes out weekly in print, has been the dominant outlet in higher education coverage throughout most of its existence.

A fundamental tension in having succeeded at maintaining a strong base of institutional subscribers is what that success means for growing the site’s audience, and attracting individual subscribers beyond those who have free access through their schools. The site gets around 2.3 million monthly unique visitors. But is the market for paid higher ed coverage fully saturated?

With that tension in mind, the Chronicle has been working to build new products to appeal to the individual subscriber, editor-in-chief Liz McMillen told me. This year, the publication has launched a number of new initiatives aimed at those individual subscribers, such as a Politico Pro-esque insider newsletter and carefully curated anthologies around major higher ed issues, drawn from the Chronicle archives.

“We’re hopeful that, even for people with site licenses, we can give them enough compelling new things that they decide this is worth subscribing to,” McMillen said.

McMillen and I discussed paywalls, higher-ed coverage in the Trump era, new places to find subscribers. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Shan Wang: You guys recently did a big, strategic rethink along the lines of The New York Times Innovation Report. Can you take me through some of the bigger points of change over the last year or so, in terms of how you are thinking about audience and growth and sustainability in a much more uncertain time?

Liz McMillen: What we’re enacting, and have been working on for the last year, is developing a subscriber-first strategy. It simply means that the individuals who pay us every year are the readers who are going to count most in our world.

1,600 campuses have site licenses with us, and thousands and thousands of people read the Chronicle via those site licenses. But we were looking for a way to really provide as much value as possible to individual subscribers.

We just rolled out a set of new benefits for them — in a case of perfect timing, the week of the election. We are providing them with a new daily briefing newsletter that synthesizes a lot of the important higher ed news out there. It doesn’t just point to Chronicle stuff, though it certainly can, and does. But if you have time for only one newsletter a day, this is the one we want you to read.

Also as part of the daily briefing, we’re trying to connect more with our subscribers. We give them inside looks at what we’re working on. Say we’re interested in finding out whether their campus has seen any kind of protests or incidents after the election. We want to hear about it. We want to report on it. College presidents come by our Washington, D.C., offices every day. We can relay the snippets of information that come out of those interviews back to our readers who get that briefing.

The second set of benefits, that also just rolled out, is called Chronicle Focus Collections. It’s a set of article collections that we’ve put together on 15 of the key issues and controversies and problems facing colleges right now. We’ve done the work going back into our extensive archives. Say your college is facing a historical naming problem, or you have a confederate statue, or something proven to be controversial — we have a collection of articles that will show you what we’ve reported on regarding this issue in the last 18 months, and give you some guidance as to what other campuses are doing.

chronicle-higher-ed-collections

We’ve also done a print redesign. The Chronicle was started in 1966 as an eight-page tabloid that came out every other week. There was nothing else like it. We were the first publication to cover colleges and universities in all their aspects. Over time, as higher education changed and as the world of media and news changed, we’ve had to evolve constantly. The question we wrestled with earlier this year was, what is a weekly newspaper? Is there such a thing in this day and age?

What we settled on was, actually, not really a vehicle for news the way we conventionally understand it. We changed direction and decided to really focus the print edition on analysis, investigative reporting, and a new area of content we’ve developed on problem-solving — reporting deeply on how colleges are tackling problems, the mistakes they’re making, the solutions they’re arriving at. We’ve done all this in a design that’s clean, and we hope is more engaging. It moves more toward a magazine structure and convention. We think most people are getting the news in the moment on our website.

We’re getting good strong responses to all of this. We’re setting ourselves up for the next decade, perhaps the next half-century.

Wang: The focus on adding paying subscribers and giving them “more value” seems to be the way a lot of news organizations are headed now. I wanted to ask you about those people who are getting The Chronicle essentially for free through university site licenses — and I’m one of them — and how you’re trying to get them to become paying members as well? I can read it for free online, and I and many others maybe don’t even realize it’s a paid-for product.

McMillen: Let me back up for a second and say, we were early online. We secured the Chronicle.com domain in the early nineties, well before the other Chronicle newspapers ever tried. We’ve always had a paywall. We put portions of the print issue on the site over time, but we’ve never taken down the paywall and made the site free. Our philosophy has always been that we produce journalism and information and data that people are willing to pay for — period.

When we approach a story or a piece of reporting with that in mind, we’re not chasing commodity news; we’re chasing deep context, explanation, historical perspective. That’s where we are right now. A good portion of our content is behind the paywall, but we do have certain pieces in front of the paywall. You can’t entice someone to experiment and subscribe to your publication unless you give them a taste of what they’re likely to see.

On any given day you might see opinion pieces by a president, a thought leader, on some major issue, to give you a sense of what that section is like. We have some of our careers content directed at rising faculty members and people new to the academy.

Occasionally we do a really important, ambitious, high-impact story. We did one a few years ago on why alcohol has maintained such an incredible hold on campuses, and why it’s still an issue after so many years of statements that we’re going to do something about it. Stories like that have potential to have big impacts beyond our world, and we’ll make them free.

That gives you a sense of our philosophy. Some exposure to our content online would prompt people to subscribe. We’re hopeful that, even for people with site licenses, we can give them enough compelling new things that they decide this is worth subscribing to.

For the Chronicle Focus Collections, we’re adding two new collections every month. Last week, we collected some of our best content trying to understand what a Trump presidency is going to mean for higher ed. Since Election Day we’ve published between two and three dozen pieces by reporters, outside contributors, faculty members, presidents, trying to understand what this particular moment means. We assembled our best, most forward-looking content into a PDF collection, and that went out yesterday. That’s a way we’re trying to respond to the news and do the work for the reader.

Wang: I hadn’t realized the individual subscribers get more than the readers who access the site through their university licenses. Can you give me a sense of what the Chronicle’s overall readership looks like?

McMillen: There isn’t much of difference in what those readers and subscribers are getting on the web. You’re getting what we’re producing the web. You’re not getting this daily newsletter and you don’t have access to these article collections, which we’re hoping will be a full library at some point.

We have 48,000 digital and print subscribers. It’s not quite an even split between administrative and faculty — it’s probably more 55-45, administrators and faculty.

Wang: Higher ed is a pretty specific topic and it doesn’t sound like you care too much about getting scale and reaching a mass audience, but are there blind spots or certain groups you’d like to turn into regular readers, who you haven’t reached or maybe catered to in any systematic way with offerings you have currently?

McMillen: If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re asking, where we think the readers might be in the future, how we might reach them?

Wang: Are there obvious holes, how are you thinking about getting your stories in front of those people?

McMillen: Vitae is a key piece of this. Vitae is a comprehensive career site that we launched three years ago in 2013. It’s a network of academics who apply for jobs and present their professional profiles in a way like LinkedIn, but the site is much more catered and tailored to the particulars of an academic career. Academics have CVs, they publish lots of papers, they have courses taught. It’s not the conventional resume. We have to build the site to cater to that audience. We have 835,000 Vitae members. A number of them are young academics coming on to the job market. They’re faculty, adjunct professors, young administrators going into student affairs, alumni affairs. There’s a whole generational shift represented on Vitae — though we certainly have older academics as well — and there’s obviously potential to connect what we do at the Chronicle to the people at Vitae.

You’re coming into your career here at the academy. We want to tell you about the essential publication that you’re going to need for your professional life. There are interesting connections there.

Wang: Vitae members aren’t regular readers of the Chronicle?

McMillen: The overlap is not big. Somewhere around 20 percent of Vitae members who are also Chronicle readers. There’s plenty of growth and opportunity there.

Wang: How are you reshaping your coverage, the types of stories you do — breaking news, longform, investigations — and the subject areas you cover, to try to get those new pockets of readers? How are you thinking about what a Chronicle story is, now that you have a clearer mandate of focusing on the subscribing audience?

McMillen: We think about that every single day, and it’s never a fixed thing. We have a responsibility to lots of different kinds of readers. We certainly put subscribers first. They value our deep coverage of issues, the historical perspectives we offer, the expertise our reporters have. We have a newsroom of about 65 reporters, editors, designers, data journalists — we do a lot with data. The more depth we can bring, the better.

At the same time, we have a large audience of people who come to the site and want to know what’s happening right now. We consider breaking news very important. We have a large daily news team, and they’re out there every day trying to figure out what’s happening right now that we need to tell people about. We’ve been reporting in the last few days on the various harassment incidents that have cropped up on campuses. Our team has been keeping a running roster of those incidents.

We’re in a position where we have to do a lot of different things well. We went into our conversations with subscribers thinking people don’t read us in print anymore. When we talked to them, though, we saw how many ways they read us. We have people who only look at us on the phone; people who get our daily newsletter and scan the headlines to make sure they’re on top of what’s happening in that moment and pick up their print edition and finish reading the print edition; people who never look at [the site] at all and only look at our weekly publication in print.

That’s a lot of different ways for people to consume our content. We don’t want people to miss things.

Wang: Do you keep breaking news in front of the paywall?

McMillen: Some of it. We have a blog called The Ticker, which is our headline service — somebody resigned, Cornell’s named a new president, a suit has been settled for a court case. That gives you a sense of what’s happening, and then it’s up to the editors of the other teams to decide if we do more with those items. That’s in front of the paywall.

Wang: You mentioned jumping into action on election night to get togther as many stories as you could on what a Trump presidency might mean for higher ed. Are you rethinking what sorts of stories you want to dive into more deeply, investigations you want to do, as a result of the election, that you maybe even undercovered in the past, or didn’t give prime real estate to on the site?

McMillen: I may come at that in a couple of different ways. There are two strands, perhaps even three, that we’re going to be pursuing, that we obviously weren’t planning two weeks ago.

What does this mean from a policy point of view, to have someone in the office who has stated that he wants to close down the Department of Education? What might that mean; is that even possible? What new policy measures, if any, will come out of a Trump White House?

Title IX has been a contentious issue for campuses the last five years. There’s been some intense enforcement by the federal government. Is that going to continue? Many people think it won’t.

A second strand we’ll be looking at is the cultural moment of the Trump election, and what appears to be a repudiation of the many values associated with higher ed: multiculturalism, diversity, inclusion, expertise. What does that mean for campuses and what does it mean for the standing of higher education in this country?

Third, we’re going to devote some reporting resources to understanding the disenfranchised voter and the economy in this country, and the relationship to a college education, looking at particular geographic regions where that might be interesting to examine.

We reported from a county in Michigan that strongly supported Obama and where Obama launched a very big jobs initiative. And this county went largely for Trump. What’s going on there, between jobs, the economy, and higher ed?

We do a lot right now. It’s kind of astonishing, the array of issues you can cover when you write about higher education. There are football games and drinking games, but there are also stories are about equity, and financial disadvantage, and preparing people for careers. We cover a lot of different things under the very big umbrella of higher education. It’s an exciting time to be a journalist here. Certainly, other publications have discovered that higher ed is a good story. Since the recession, at least, it’s become a much bigger national story.

Photo of Sweden’s Lund University library by barnyzused under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 22, 2016, 10:20 a.m.
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