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June 25, 2018, 9:36 a.m.
Reporting & Production

With new beats and sprints, The Sacramento Bee aims to hit 60,000 digital subs

“We’re looking hard at what types of stories drive digital-only subscriptions. We know the last story someone read before they hit the meter, we know what the first story is that they visited after they hit the meter, and so what do we do with that information?”

The math is fairly simple: The Sacramento Bee is trying to become completely sustained by digital subscriptions in the next few years. To do that, it needs 60,000 subscribers. Right now, it has 15,000.

Lauren Gustus, McClatchy regional editor for California, Idaho, and Washington, is trying to make The Bee sustainable by offering readers specialized content that will, hopefully, be habit-forming. The Bee is one of four newsrooms this year that has joined Table Stakes, a project funded by the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute. (Disclosure: Nieman Lab also receives funding from Knight.) Table Stakes challenges newsrooms to diversify revenue and gain digital subscribers.

The Bee aims to do this by borrowing from the realm of software development and experimenting on coverage areas through “sprints.” Sprints are the shorter sections of “scrums,” like in rugby, when the team works together to move the ball down the field in a series of focused bursts. By moving beats around and assigning reporters to focus briefly on new sections of the community for periods of just a few weeks, it aims to test the marketability of the new beat in a trial period.

Gustus explained the mission in a letter to readers earlier this month:

We could fully fund our newsrooms — from salaries and benefits to notepads and pens — if we had 60,000 people supporting us through digital subscriptions. Roughly 15,000 do so today, so we’d need to earn the support of about 45,000 more…

To do what we do, we also need sales support and printing presses and other costs that are not built in here. So the numerical goal of 60,000 digital subscribers is somewhat symbolic. But the underlying goal is very real: to produce quality local journalism so important to you that you’re willing to pay for it. That’s the sustainable way forward for any news organization — for for any company, really: to create a product you feel is worth what you pay for it.

That’s our focus, so much so that we’re now tracking our subscription numbers in real-time in the newsroom.

Reporter Tony Bizjak, along with many others in the newsroom, was concerned that by reallocating already scarce newsroom resources, certain stories wouldn’t be covered. One fear, for instance, was that stories about homelessness might be left out of the community coverage, because homeless people are unlikely to be able to pay for digital subscriptions.

Thankfully, this fear was unfounded; reporters have still been encouraged to cover these stories. “We clearly aren’t going to forget certain groups,” Bizjak said.

Bizjak was assigned a “new housing” beat sprint. The city of Sacramento has seen a troubling inflation of rent prices in recent years. But he didn’t want to leave his old beat of transportation; Sacramento was a city of commuters. So he does both.

“Sprint” implies a level of ferocity that Bizjak feels is misunderstood. All of the reporters at The Bee are already working at their full capacity. To do more simply isn’t feasible. Instead, the sprints represent a particular kind of refocusing, an effort to reach a certain audience in a certain amount of time.

This is all part of Gustus’s plan to find niche audiences who deem The Bee’s coverage valuable enough to pay for.

“We’re also looking hard at what types of stories drive digital-only subscriptions,” Gustus said. “We know the last story someone read before they hit the meter, we know what the first story is that they visited after they hit the meter, and so what do we do with that information?”

The newsroom isn’t as focused on clicks as it once was. “If you’re looking at getting people to stay with you, you’re offering something they see value in,” Gustus said. “You’re offering them stories they want to stay with for longer than 20 seconds.” The focus is on value and how much time a reader spends on the page.

“The essential questions of ‘Who are our readers? What do they want?’ This hasn’t changed,” Bizjak said. The Bee has an older poster up on the wall with a series of boxes to check to ensure story relevancy. The mission checklist is five bullets long. To paraphrase: Will the story speak truth to power? Will the story break news that will make a difference? Will the story inform readers how the story will affect their lives or their loved ones? Will the story tell itself in a new way? Will the story generate a lot of interest?

“The only difference now, I think,” Bizjak said, “Is that that middle bullet [will this story affect the lives of readers?] stands a little taller.”

Gustus hopes that the audience sprints will be able to be translated to McClatchy’s nine other properties in the region. These sprints are still fairly new, and I’ll be checking back in with The Bee later this summer to see how the first quarter went, and how much closer they are to hitting those 60,000 online subscriptions.

POSTED     June 25, 2018, 9:36 a.m.
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