9 media leaders on the future of newspapers in America

What does the newspaper of tomorrow look like? This is the question many in the news industry are grappling with today. We’ve seen how publishers in Europe are reinventing digital editions, and this trend has started in South Africa too. But it doesn’t seem to have reached the United States yet. So how are newspapers in America, other than giants like The New York Times, planning for their future?

I spent the past 2 months looking into this question and conducting interviews with leaders of newspapers and media groups across the US. From these interviews, I’ve summarised the four main strategies I’ve observed newspapers in the US market following while trying to create the newspaper of tomorrow.

In the interest of ensuring complete frankness in our discussions, the interviewees have asked to remain anonymous.

Need to develop newspaper reading habits in young people

Some things are the same across the globe, American newspapers are in agreement that they need to develop reading habits in young people.

“It’s something I think about all the time, we do try to engage younger audiences. Unfortunately, what we find is those folks aren’t conditioned to reading a newspaper, they’re more conditioned for just quick information. They’re not wanting to pay for news, because no one has proven the value of paying for it. You can get so much for free.”

Thanks to the “Trump Bump”, we’ve seen the proportion of people aged 18-24 in the US who pay for online news leap from 4% to 18% in a year. So we know it is possible to get young people to pay for news. But how can newspapers show the value in their products? Perhaps it’s time to rethink the packaging, to look at what format young people prefer to consume the news in. The Espresso from The Economist and La Matinale du Monde are great examples of giving daily bite-sized chunks of news, easily consumable by young people on the go.

Newsletters are the front page of today’s newspaper

One way newspapers are trying to reach a younger audience is through newsletters, which offer busy people concise bits of information and helps to better engage them.

“We use our newsletters and apps with breaking notifications which are more suitable for younger people, busier people, people more your age who are used to getting really concise bite sized chunks of information.”

This is a trend in Europe as well, with French financial newspaper Les Echos having found that their readers who reached the website via email are more loyal than those who come via social media or search.

“With newsletters, we’ve shown ways to deepen engagement with existing subscribers, build engagement early on with non-subscribers and get them to interact with our content then ultimately convert to becoming a subscriber. These products are key in the customer lifetime journey for a non-subscriber to a subscriber.”

With the curation of which articles to include in the newsletter, we can see that many people who in the past would glance at the day’s top headlines before going to work are now scrolling through a newsletter with those headlines.

Even for publishers who said their focus was on breaking local news and producing enough content to encourage readers to check back multiple times a day acknowledged the unique role newsletters play in forming reader habits. By sending easily digestible bits of news at a set time each day or week, readers form a habit that helps to trigger them to become paying subscribers.

“The newsletter platform for a lot of newspapers is the entry way for us to connect with lightly consuming readers…to give them hyper focused content on what they’re interested in. To get the newsletters they have to give us their email address so then we can start taking them further down the funnel to engage with our content.”

Renewed interest in paid content strategies

This summer may come to be known as the summer of the paywall. From my interviews, three newspapers, which had previously never had a paywall, will be launching a paywall in the coming months.

“From 2013 to now, we fundamentally believed we could sustain ourselves on ads, and that would be more profitable and successful based on a large audience versus putting up a paywall and shrinking whatever audience you had. The nature of advertising has changed though, CPMs are always getting pushed down. There’s a pretty flat demand but an endless supply.”

“The New York Times, The Washington Post have demonstrated that a subscription-based model can work. What has happened in the past several years has been extremely encouraging for newspapers. It is time.”

These publishers believe that public opinion has changed enough, with a new understanding of the need to pay for quality journalism, making it the right time to charge for their online content.

“We need to transition to the mindset where our content is extremely valuable, especially in the world of fake news, to know that what we’re producing is quality content, is fully vetted, under journalistic standards, and there is an appreciation for that, even from younger people these days.”

This holds particularly true, not just from a quality perspective but also from a local news perspective.

“There’s a stronger understanding now that news doesn’t have to always be free. Newspapers were so afraid when they got online, content was free, but there’s no one else in the world covering our town, there’s no one that has our depth of news. It’s time to see if local news has value. I believe it does. But it will be very much about execution.”

Still, publishers acknowledged the need to highlight the value subscribers receive from local news.

“No one else can come into our town and get local news–Facebook, Google aren’t doing it. So, we’ve got that wrapped up. But what can you have besides local news? We don’t want just 3 dollars a month, we want 5-10 dollars. Is it local documentaries? We’re seeing it more as a content play, not just the traditional news and weather. We want to be the Netflix of our town. Netflix for me is one thing, but for my mom it is another thing, it’s old movies, documentaries on cooking. They’ve done a really nice job of combining this huge bevy of content.”

One way Netflix has become so big is through their use of AI and advanced technology, something many European publishers are already experimenting with. Standout examples include Nordic media group Schibsted’s use of machine learning in the newsroom, Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung’s flexible paywall personalised to the individual based on hundreds of criteria, and News UK’s JAMES, your digital butler”, which we are currently co-developing and will use machine learning to gradually get to know the habits, interests, and preferences of readers.

Other publishers discussed moving further with their existing paywall strategies, one explained the research they’re conducting for their new paywall that will adapt based on what will trigger the individual reader the most. For this regional publisher, their local news and opinion pieces are behind the paywall while national stories and other topics such as sports are free to read. However with the new paywall, if a reader comes everyday for sports stories, it will adapt to put those stories behind the paywall.

Too little investment in e-editions

Unlike their European counterparts who have focused on building up reader revenue for a while now, American newspapers on average have less mature subscription strategies. This is seen as well in their digital offerings. Whereas in Europe the ePaper is seen as a loyalty instrument to deeply engage readers, digital editions in the US have often not matured past pure replicas of the print editions, with only PDFs and limited functionalities.

“Most American media companies don’t put a lot of stock in just reproducing their print product online because the belief is that the online user is looking for a different experience. Maybe coming in interested in 1 or 2 articles, but not really interested in swiping through a newspaper.”

ePapers are viewed as something necessary for a certain segment of readers, usually of an older generation.

“Most of our readers are older, 50 and over. It’s not to say they aren’t tech savvy, but it gives them the news in a way that they’re use to. It’s not like they’re on an app, scrolling through, so it’s comfortable, it’s familiar, easy to navigate. It’s really sort of the gateway for a lot of readers to get more digitally engaged. They can read it anywhere they want, they can even read it on vacation.”

This is a missed opportunity for American newspapers. They should look to their counterparts across Europe who are developing new digital products to meet the needs of their readers, such as the digital-only evening edition from Ouest-France or the early access edition from Diario de Navarra. By adding videos, games, and more engaging content, newspapers can use their digital editions to reach new segments of readers and to become part of the daily routine of their existing readers.

American newspapers may find themselves needing to master this new skill earlier than expected. Thanks in part to new tariffs on paper from Canada, the cost of printing an edition every day has risen. Some publishers believe this will lead them to going digital-only during the week within the next 5 years, retaining a print product only on the weekends.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about what do we look like in 5 years? If we get priced out on paper and workforce development continues to be an issue, where do we go? The answer is digital, but at what point do we stop publishing 7 days a week? At what point do we become a digital product during the week and a printed product on the weekends? Those are the things I think about, I’m not sure if a whole lot of other people think about it. We’re very focused on the grind of the day to day of actually getting our jobs done.”

Such newspapers in the US that go digital-only will be in good company, joining the many European newspapers that have either gone digital-only or created new digital-only editions, such as Le Monde, The Independent, and The Economist.

Thank you once again to the publishers who participated in this research!

Do you have a different view, or think another strategy could work for American newspapers? Get in touch! Or sign up to be informed of any new developments that come from my research into the US newspaper industry.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe 

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