Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
The California Journalism Preservation Act would do more harm than good. Here’s how the state might better help news
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Oct. 3, 2023, 2:51 p.m.
Business Models

Aiming for 500,000 subscribers by 2026, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution takes a big swing on growth

“We want to cloak ourselves in all things Atlanta. And frankly, in recent years, we haven’t necessarily done that.”

Many local publications have cut costs this year. But The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is dreaming big.

The legacy media company is looking to grow its roughly 60,000 digital subscribers to 500,000 by the end of 2026. Publisher and president Andrew Morse believes that implementing a “New York Times playbook” to “super-serve” specific audiences in Atlanta, Georgia, and the broader South and Southeast will get the company to that number, and to profitability.

“Atlanta is having this really unique moment,” Morse told me, citing the city’s prominence in politics, the film and television industry, sports, and its identity as “the largest, most dynamic African American community in the country.”

The broader regional and national relevance of the publication’s home city, Morse said, suggests “a substantial audience opportunity.” In his view, “if we do Atlanta really well, and we cover Georgia politics really well, that’s going to be of interest to people throughout the state. And because Georgia is so important, we’ll pick up subscribers throughout the Southeast and nationwide.”

At the same time, Morse said he hears from local leaders about the growing local news vacuum in communities across Georgia, and he believes the AJC can help fill this void and attract hyperlocal subscribers as well. While an increasing number of the outlets seeking to reimagine local news are nonprofits (including in Atlanta, with outlets such as Capital B, Canopy Atlanta, and The Atlanta Voice), the AJC’s expansion is a significant example of a for-profit legacy institution innovating and investing in local news.

To drive this expansion, the AJC plans to hire about 100 people — expanding the newsroom and adding positions across product development, technology, design, analytics, and marketing.

What, exactly, does “the Southeast” encompass for the publication? “I think you can go all the way north until you hit The Washington Post before there’s a really entrenched news outlet. I think you can go all the way west until you hit Texas before there’s a really entrenched news outlet. And I think you can go all the way south to at least Northern Florida before there’s a really entrenched news outlet,” Morse told me.

“The legacy of the AJC, decades ago, was very much the voice of the South,” he added. “It is in our DNA, and I think we can step into that void.”

The New York Times playbook

Morse believes “the New York Times playbook” of the past decade is the key to becoming that primary news source on a local and regional level. To him, that playbook means building products and journalism around specific target audiences, asking “who’s our audience?” before all else, and prioritizing marketing, technology, analytics, and user experience as much as journalism.

“I think the organizations that have struggled to build sustainable businesses haven’t had a clear understanding of who their audience is or what the audience wanted from them,” Morse said.

In Morse’s view, the Times playbook is applicable to global, national, television-based, and print-based media alike. Among local publications, he pointed to The Boston Globe and The Minneapolis Star Tribune as useful comparisons that have succeeded at growing digital subscribers in the way he hopes to. He noted that while it took The Globe seven years to reach its first 100,000 subscribers, it only took a year to reach its second 100,000. (The Globe was also the first local publication to gain more digital than print subscribers in 2019 — the AJC, with a total weekday circulation ranging from 80,000 to 100,000, has yet to surpass that milestone even as print circulation declines nationally for every audience except retirees.) And the Star Tribune is a standout example of relative digital success among local newspapers. (That said, other publications have struggled to regionalize and grow digital subscribers. The LA Times, for instance, laid off about 13% of its newsroom earlier this year.)

Comparing the AJC’s growth goals with digital growth achieved to date by The Boston Globe, Star-Tribune, LA Times, and The New York Times helps contextualize just how ambitious the AJC’s objectives are. The AJC launched a paywall relatively recently, in 2020 (though it was a relative internet pioneer in the ’90s with Access Atlanta), and aims to grow from 60,000 digital subscribers now to 500,000 by 2026. That would be among the most digital subscriptions to a local publication in the country.

The Globe launched its paywall in 2011; as of last year, more than a decade later, it had reached 235,000 digital subscribers. The Star Tribune implemented a paywall around the same time as The Globe and, as of January, had about 100,000 digital subscribers. The LA Times implemented its paywall in 2012 (billing it as a “membership program”), and had reached about 550,000 digital subscribers as of this summer. Its owner, Patrick Soon-Shiong, bought the paper in 2018 with his own ambitious goals for regional expansion; he had aspired to reach 1 million digital subscribers by the end of 2022, and eventually, 5 million digital subscribers.

Meanwhile, The New York Times (apples to oranges, with its national and global reach, but the model Morse aspires to apply locally) launched its paywall in 2011 and hit 640,000 digital subscriptions in early 2013, 1.6 million subscribers by 2016, and 10 million digital subscribers last year (with a boost from the acquisition of The Athletic and its 1.8 million subscribers).

“If you can identify an audience that needs your product, and you invest heavily in world-class journalism,” Morse said, “but alongside it, world-class product development, technology, analytics, and marketing — which has been responsible for the Times’ success as much as the journalism itself — and if you point the whole organization toward growing digital subscribers, there is a blueprint to sustainability, profitability, and growth.”

The “invest” part is key. According to The Wall Street Journal, the AJC’s expansion is funded in part by a $100 million investment from parent company Cox Enterprises, a family-owned company with cable, broadband, and automotive divisions that exceeded $20 billion in revenue in 2022. After selling off most of its newspapers (with the exception of the AJC) and media assets throughout the 2010s, Cox expanded its media holdings last year by acquiring Axios.

“No organization has ever cut its way to prosperity,” Morse said. “I believe that there is a future; there is a big audience opportunity. But to get there, you need to invest.” Morse added that he began thinking about how to implement a growth plan at the AJC before arriving, and moved quickly with his leadership team to pitch the business plan and growth strategy to Cox to secure their support. While he wouldn’t publicly share the exact amount of the investment, he said the funding “gives us as much running room as we need to be able to execute the plan” for growth.

The target audience(s)

Morse breaks the AJC’s target audience down into five different cohorts that extend across both a local and regional scale. “We didn’t just conjure 500,000 out of thin air,” he said — that number stems from the AJC’s market sizing based on those target audience cohorts. Those five groups are “news junkies;” “political junkies throughout Atlanta, Georgia, the South and beyond;” “the African American community;” “hyper-passionate sports fans” (especially of the Atlanta Braves); and “food and lifestyle consumers” who enjoy Atlanta’s “thriving food scene.”

“We believe if we build products that serve those segments — not just create content, but build real products to serve those segments — we’ll grow our audience,” Morse said.

Among these, “one of [our] most important priorities is to build a new product experience that unlocks the remarkably dynamic and vibrant Black culture that really defines Atlanta in a lot of ways,” Morse said. “It’s what makes the city so special.” As a team develops that product, Morse said, the publication has prioritized connecting with community leaders to ask, “How do we build that? What do we want it to look like? How do we engage people with that?” (The AJC appointed its first Black editor-in-chief, Leroy Chapman Jr., earlier this year.)

When it comes to politics, the Trump indictment is already driving AJC subscriptions, Morse said, and is an all-hands-on-deck focal point for the newsroom (launching, for instance, a pop-up Fulton County grand jury newsletter). The week of the indictment alone, the publication saw a surge in subscriptions — about a third from Atlanta, a third from Georgia, and a third from outside the state.

On the pathway to 500,000 subscribers by the end of 2026, Morse expects to “more than double” the AJC’s current 60,000 subscribers next year, and said the AJC has “precise annual growth targets.”

Lessons from TV?

Before joining the AJC in January, Morse spent much of his career in television news, including at CNN, Bloomberg, and ABC News. Most recently, at CNN, he spearheaded the company’s short-lived streaming channel, CNN+, which Warner Bros. Discovery shut down after barely a month. Prior to its launch, Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop reported that “Morse has repeatedly compared CNN+ not to other streaming services but to the Times, which has in recent years transitioned itself from being an old-school newspaper company to a multipronged digital behemoth that has successfully added online subscribers — not just for its core news business but also for cooking, games, and more — via various subscription combinations.”

Morse’s experience with CNN+ did not shake his faith in the New York Times strategy or its applicability to other media contexts. Prioritizing digital subscriber growth, while investing in product, technology, marketing, and analytics in addition to quality journalism, is “a playbook that can be successful at the AJC, or CNN, or really any news organization,” he told me in a follow-up email.

Morse also believes digital news and legacy media companies like the AJC can take a few bigger-picture lessons from television news, including round-the-clock coverage and valuing the draw of individual reporters, or “talent.” What’s more, the AJC’s new products under development include video projects.

Video can be a fraught undertaking for newspapers, Morse noted. “Many newspapers that have tried to dabble in video have found it to be the equivalent of fighting a land war in Russia in winter, where you can get bogged down, and it gets torturous, and it gets long — and before you know it, you wind up spending an extraordinary amount of money.” To avoid meeting a wintery grave, Morse said the AJC plans to build “a nimble and agile team that’s creating topical, daily essential video for people” and “targeted, engaging series” tied to their core focus areas like politics, Black culture, and sports.

For instance, the publication recently hired Monica Pearson, an eminent longtime local news anchor with a following of her own, to host a weekly interview show. Morse hopes to tap into that preexisting following to bring in new subscribers.

On the audio front, the AJC recently expanded its Politically Georgia podcast to five days a week, even as the growth of podcasts generally has stalled and some have cut back. Politically Georgia is hosted by Greg Bluestein, Tia Mitchell, and Patricia Murphy (all regular commentators on national television) and recently hired Bill Nigut. “In addition to the fact that they’re all terrific reporters, they’re personalities that people want to engage with,” Morse said.

This individual personality emphasis will apply across the AJC’s newsletters and live events as well. “There’ll be much more voice and personality, and much more of a talent focus, in our newsletters,” Morse said. As it revamps its newsletters, the AJC will partner with Axios, its sibling by ownership (also, Axios’ local newsrooms include Axios Atlanta). “[Axios co-founder] Mike Allen is really the founding father of the modern newsletter,” Morse said. (In a follow-up email, he added, “we’re looking for ways to collaborate, but there is nothing substantive on the horizon.”)

Optimizing the paywall

Paywalls present a dilemma for all digital newsrooms looking to ramp up digital subscriptions. You want to draw in new readers, who could be shut out and discouraged by strict limits — but you also need to lock some content away for the people who are paying for your product. Where’s the sweet spot?

Morse and the AJC will experiment with finding the right balance moving forward. To lay the groundwork for its expansion, the publication will roll out a new user management system in the next few months. Right now, “we’re rethinking the rules around our paywall,” Morse said. “We want to increase that top of funnel; we want to make sure that people in Atlanta, Georgia, and the South are able to check us out and sample us and have access to content.” At the same time, many of the AJC’s investments in new products will be subscriber-focused, and “ultimately, we think we’re going to create a product of value that people are going to want to subscribe to.”

The marketing and growth teams see a few different engines for growth, Morse said. “We need to increase traffic to ajc.com; we need to increase overall awareness of what the AJC has to offer; we need people to sample our products, and then if they like them, we want them to register and we want them to subscribe.”

“We’re currently working through what the right rules are in order to be able to bring customers down through the funnel,” he said.

Becoming “part of Atlanta”

In a recent publisher’s note to subscribers describing the AJC’s expansion goals, Morse wrote that its mission is “to be the most essential and engaging news source for the people of Atlanta, Georgia and the South.” Morse told me he believes that in recent years, the AJC has done a good job of providing “essential” news coverage to Atlanta and to Georgia, including coverage of inequity in housing, health care, and education — even in the face of the intense financial pressure decimating local newspapers across the country. But now, he says the publication needs to double down on also being “engaging.”

”I think the challenge for us is, how do we really become a part of this vibrant city that we live in?” he said.

In his first eight months on the job, Morse said he’s prioritized meeting with community leaders and representatives from politicians to CEOs, and feels that there is widespread support for the AJC’s mission, but “for our part, we need to look for ways to reconnect.”

The AJC will relocate its headquarters from an office park in Dunwoody, Georgia, where they’ve been for about the past decade, to midtown Atlanta in 2024. “That’s a visible sign of us being in the city,” Morse said, adding, “We want to cloak ourselves in all things Atlanta. And frankly, in recent years, we haven’t necessarily done that.”

At the same time, Morse added that the AJC’s leap ultimately has implications well beyond just the publication or Atlanta itself. “We believe pretty strongly that there is a model in this to get us to a path of growth and profitability and 500,000 subscribers,” he said. “And if we can do that, we think that we can build a blueprint and a model for local journalism to follow.” That goal, Morse added, is “something that’s really important to the Cox family” — they’ve supported this ambitious expansion because they value local news deeply, he said.

Not every newsroom has an owner willing to invest $100 million. But in Morse’s view, the AJC’s strategy is replicable in smaller markets with tighter budgets, too. “Some organizations have gone off track [by] not understanding how essential product development, technology, analytics, and marketing are to operate in a modern newsroom,” he said. “So a lot of newsrooms have outsourced those capabilities. And I would argue that investing in those capabilities is as important, if not more important, than the investments in journalism, because unless you’re growing those capabilities, the best journalism in the world is not going to reach your audience.”

Photo of Atlanta skyline by Joey Kyber on Unsplash.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     Oct. 3, 2023, 2:51 p.m.
SEE MORE ON Business Models
Show tags
 
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
The California Journalism Preservation Act would do more harm than good. Here’s how the state might better help news
“If there are resources to be put to work, we must ask where those resources should come from, who should receive them, and on what basis they should be distributed.”
Dateline Totality: How local news outlets in the eclipse’s path are covering the covering
“Celestial events tend to draw highly engaged audiences, and this one is no exception.”
The conspiracy-loving Epoch Times is thinking about opening…a journalism school?
It would, um, “champion the same values of ‘truth and traditional’ as The Epoch Times” and, er, “nurture in the next generation of media professionals,” ahem, “the highest standards of personal integrity, fairness, and truth-seeking.”