Northwestern University’s Medill Subscriber Engagement Index, a groundbreaking tool to help newsrooms track their digital subscribers, has received a major boost from the Google News Initiative: a partnership that includes expertise and $500,000 in financial backing to support the index’s operation for at least the next two years.
The index, launched late last year, tells participating news outlets which aspects of their content are correlated with retention of digital-only subscribers. The index also tracks the behavior of subscribers to identify at-risk customers as well as which devices they’re using and other valuable metrics.
The Index allows outlets to benchmark their performance against that of peers across the country. And it offers a “What-If” tool that lets news publishers create scenarios of how changes in their subscription performance might affect the bottom line. Medill is making the index available for free to news outlets invited to participate.
Google’s partnership on the project also includes support for Mather Economics, an Atlanta-based company focused on subscription revenue in the news industry that supplies and manages data to power the index. Mather Economics collaborated with Northwestern’s Medill Spiegel Research Center to create the index, which was developed with the support of a Google Innovation Challenge Grant.
More than 50 news outlets are now part of the Index, with about 100 more expected to join in the first half of this year. Participants include large metro news organizations such as the Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald, mid-tier outlets like The Idaho Statesman and Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call, and smaller markets such as the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette and Belleville (Illinois) News-Democrat.
“We’re excited to partner with Medill and Mather Economics to support this effort and advance the industry’s success in digital subscription acquisition and retention,” said Ben Monnie, Director of GNI Programs at Google. “We believe the insights the study produces can also help strengthen the free business training programs – like the Digital Growth Program – and our award winning data tools – like News Consumer Insights – we offer the industry.”
The news organizations shown here include current participants in the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index and those scheduled to join it in the near future.
Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean and the John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at Medill, sees the Index as a boost for both the participating newsrooms and the industry over-all.
“As local news organizations increasingly rely on reader revenue to sustain themselves, the Medill Index is the perfect tool at the perfect time to help them better understand what’s motivating people to pay for local news,” Franklin said. “This Index is giving local news leaders tangible, actionable insights to grow their readership and audience engagement in their communities. Medill also will be closely monitoring the Index so we can inform the industry about what’s resonating – and not working – with digital local news audiences. We welcome the Google News Initiative’s support, and we’re happy to make this tool available for free to those invited to participate.”
Matt Lindsay, President of Mather Economics, also is enthusiastic.
“Mather Economics is fortunate to partner with hundreds of national, regional, and local news organizations to grow subscription revenue through customer and content analytics, and we are excited to assist Medill in producing the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index with the sharing of standardized, benchmarkable digital subscriber data from participating newspapers,” Lindsay said. “Medill’s index provides operational insights for decreasing subscriber churn, allocating newsroom resources, and increasing subscriber revenue. Mather helps publishers improve business performance in areas of need identified through the Medill Index.”
Jonathan Copulsky, Spiegel’s Executive Director, said the Google collaboration is expected to cover operating costs for the index for at least the two years as well as help in areas such as training. Franklin and Spiegel Research Director Ed Malthouse have been presenting general findings from the Index at major media conferences and to local news executives around the country.
Participants in the subscriber index are all U.S.-based now, but Medill and Mather aim to eventually expand it to Canada and other countries.
Past data analysis by Spiegel at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications has shown that regular visits to a news website are the best indication that a subscriber will remain as a paying customer. For that reason, the index pays close attention to regularity patterns.
Spiegel developed the subscriber index in conjunction with the Medill Local News Initiative, a four-year-old project to promote financial sustainability for local news in order to bolster the strength of our communities.