Best Advice (Part II): Desired Content, Audience Measures, Reader Revenue

The Relevance Project is back with a second selection of the best words of wisdom from insightful presenters to news media conferences in 2020.

You’ll see slides that I captured while participating in more than 50 seminars, workshops and panel discussions.

Yeah, it’s tough but Relevant work. Happy to share. Thanks also to the advice-givers.

Onward to Part II:

In August, trainer and publisher adviser Kevin Slimp entertained a Kansas Press Association audience with the results from focus groups — he conducted — that summarize what readers want.

Here’s the overall consensus across all readers to help publishers improve the quality of their newspapers:

Next, readership is dissected into major blocks. Here’s the content wish list from experienced readers, according to Slimp.

Looking to the future, Slimp turned to younger readers to probe their wants. Notice anything different? Same?

One more from this demographic which — a key point — is larger than the baby boomers.

Slimp delivered two presentations at the Kansas virtual event. In his first one, he noted that magazines were still a new-revenue initiatives for newspapers. He checked it on this long list of other “alternative revenues” identified by community newspapers. See if any hit home runs for you.

Thad Swiderski of eType Services implored publishers to bundle their audience to sell to advertisers. That involves totaling the number of readers who use print, online, mobile, social as well as the E-edition.

At one point during his “Selling Your Total Audience with Useful Techniques to Make Money with Digital” presentation, he showed an interesting example from a Texas newspaper that clearly details its audience across all platforms.

We’ll finish Part II with three slides from John Montgomery of content-systems provider TownNews, also at the Kansas conference, and his thorough take on subscription trends.

In particular, Montgomery noted the pandemic forced newspapers into even higher reliance on subscription revenue. Gone, he said, is the industry revenue standard of 75 percent advertising and 25 percent from circulation efforts. Some newspapers are now 50-50.

Here, he identified four models that are producing revenue apart from advertising.

In his presentation “Exploring Trends And Opportunities With Subscriptions,” Montgomery also focused on successful strategies for digital growth.

He also shared an audience diagram — a contorted hourglass — to help match different strategies with different audience segments. Publishers, how does this look with your newspaper data?

Finally, Montgomery told publishers not be afraid of asking for donations, especially if it benefits local newsrooms. He pointed to this newspaper where a pop-up notice urges readers to support local journalists — a great cause.

I have plenty more slides to share. Look for Part III soon

In the meantime, Stay Relevant. It’s the only way to go.

— Tom Silvestri

Best Advice From 2020 Webinars, Talks, Zoom Conferences (Part I)

The Zoom world of newspaper conferences allowed me a front-row seat at more than 50 presentations in the back half of 2020.

I took lots of notes for blog items and snapped many pictures of the advice-givers’ slides.
It’s time to purge the photos now that the New Year is here and my phone service wants to charge more for archive storage as it bulges.

But before I zap, I’ll share in a Relevant Point series the best words of wisdom you can fit on a PowerPoint panel. It will eclectic — just like newspapers.

Here we go with Part I:

Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association’s America East summit was one of the first to shift from an in-person conference to a webinar format. In August, the focus was on tips to secure advertising as businesses were starting to reopen after being forced to shut down because of COVID-19.

These slides from Publisher John Derr of the Chestnut Hill Local still apply as we continue to ride the pandemic’s ups and downs (you also might recognize famous sitcom in the accompanying images).
Newspaper ad staffs were encouraged to show empathy by being flexible; options rule:

Sales reps and managers should put a special emphasis on ads and services that get results because some businesses may only have one chance to succeed:

Bend to showcase advertisers: Every ad can be a superstar with quality location:

Presenters are at their best when they share ideas that are working:

Keep asking: What if…

One more: Don’t forget the quality that goes into ads is what motivates motivate paying customers. Boring kills.


Exploring diversity and inclusion made for powerful conversations in 2020. During America’s Newspapers’ conference, Doris Truong of the Poynter Institute shared the many ways you can define diversity. Each is worth a discussion.


Sales guru Ryan Dohrn is a favorite speaker at several newspaper associations. In a fast-paced presentation, he delivers a lot of good information about selling in a short period.  Here, he offers 10 tips for sales professionals looking to stack up advertising and marketing dollars:

He also shared this point — zoom, zoom:


Dissecting what success looks like at community newspapers always attracts a crowd. Peter W. Wagner, founder and publisher of the N’West Iowa REVIEW, zeroed in on why some newspapers struggle, while others soar during his November presentation to the  virtual ArkLaMiss Marketing and Audience Development Conference.
First, five top ailments:

Then, the best ingredients:

Followed by the recommended mission:


We’ll end Part I with news about audience growth.

The Post and Courier in Charleston, SC, put the newsroom in charge of audience revenue strategy. Its year-over-year increases and innovation caught the attention of the Local Media Association, which asked Executive Editor Mitch Pugh in August to explain how his organization is driven by the goal of paying for the newsroom with digital subscription revenue by 2022. First, a sample of tactics.

And then, the discussion turned to how experience tweaked the initiative. Pugh listed his takeaways  — ARPU is average rate per user — with the rally call of “don’t give away content.”

Consider signing up for Charleston newsletter to see how the strategy works each day. “We’ve driven a lot of audience to the website with trustworthy news,” Pugh said. 

Stay tuned for more Relevant advice from other achievers  in Part II.

—Tom Silvestri

Diversity Remains A Complicated But Relevant Necessity

With 2020 noted as the year of promised diversity improvement, I saved an information graphic that Editor & Publisher Magazine included in its September issue. It stuck with me.

Headlined “How News Organizations Should Hire to Increase Diversity,” the chart summarized findings in the Gallup-Knight Foundation survey released earlier in year.

The survey of 20,000 U.S. adults answered this question: Which one of the following is the area in which news organizations most need to hire different types of reporters to increase the diversity of their reporting staffs?

The recommended top need wasn’t a surprise — it’s race/ethnicity. This year, we’ve seen newsrooms across the country launch initiatives with clear commitments to improve.

(What’s interesting about the top response — 35 percent — is the survey was conducted Nov. 8, 2019 through Feb. 16, 2020. George Floyd was killed May 25.)

Right behind race/ethnicity in the Gallup-Knight survey is another commanding need that newsroom face.

Political views.

That area finished in the Pew survey as the second most (30 percent) pressing hiring issue for newsrooms. It topped income or social class (18 percent), age (9 percent), and gender (5 percent), which finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively.

That newsrooms lean left of center creates a need for staffers who are right of center — even if objectivity is practiced as a standard in reporting.

The point of all of this is to have newsrooms that reflect the nature of the communities they serve and to benefit from a diversity of different perspectives, experiences and connections.

Ignoring a diversity of race/ethnicity and political views is probably costing newspapers readers and subscribers.

Want further proof on political views?

Consider this graphic I spotted this month from the Pew Research Center that indicates newspapers and other news organizations avoid the impact of the partisan divide at their own risk:

Dig deeper with Pew’s analysis:
“Across a range of measures, Republicans are far more negative than Democrats in their assessments of the news media. In a February survey, more than half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said news organizations don’t care about the people they report on (69%), are not professional (60%), are too critical of America (58%), hurt democracy (56%) and don’t care about how good of a job they do (54%). Democrats and Democratic leaners were far more positive than Republicans on all of these questions. The partisan divide in views of the news media extends to views of specific outlets, too, as a separate Center study found in January.”

Achieving meaningful diversity is vital for a news organization to be Relevant.

As we head into 2021, increasing diversity as measured by race/ethnicity as well as by political views are necessary game-changers that your readers want — and will notice.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget the other areas: income/social class, age and gender.

Add the reality of working during a pandemic and it’s admittedly complicated.

But press on. Never give up.


Newspapers Can Stay In First Place With This

A smart publisher is always on the lookout for inspiration, even in unlikely places.

Well, how about the Washington Football Team?

Yes, that unfortunate group which for too many seasons made hapless a standard, with one bitter controversy after another and with a loathed owner who is about a popular as a web break on a tight Sunday deadline in the pressroom.

Suddenly, with a new coach packing the reputation of a riverboat gambler, a veteran quarterback who is a medical miracle, a spirited defense that’s powering a four-game winning streak, and a clear commitment to clean up the organization’s sordid past, Washington is no longer the underdog to win its — albeit mediocre — division. 

The WFT is in first place, with only three games to go. Merry Christmas, Washington fans. 

After Sunday’s win against the tough San Fransisco 49ers, Coach Ron Rivera was asked how things have changed for his reinvigorated team.

Note the key word in his response, one that’s the goal of The Relevance Project: “We’re relevant, we’re in the conversation, people are talking about us, and we have to maintain and be humble.”

There you go. Stay relevant. Stay in first place.

If the Washington Football Team can do it, there’s more than ample long-term hope for community newspapers.


P.S. Go back and take the Relevance Meter test again. Keep at it.

Best Route To Newspaper Resilience is Local, Local, Local

The recipe for newspaper resilience can be complicated.

But the most important ingredients remain local, local, local.

Local ownership.

Local commitment to serve as THE Community Forum.

And, a local economy that supports trusted journalism.

That’s my major takeaway from an interesting study of Iowa news-providers by a digital journalism professor at the University of Northern Iowa writing for the Center for Journalism & Liberty.

I had a chance to speak with Christopher R. Martin who found Iowa to be an excellent state to examine why some newspapers and news organizations are more resilient than others “at a time of financial distress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.”

While his report notes a “presumably bleak” future for newspapers, Martin is encouraged as operators figure out solutions to the financial challenges.


“I’m trying to remain an optimist,” Martin said. “There’s always a need for journalism. Always a purpose for it.”

I recommend reading Martin’s 44-page report. FIND IT HERE. Let me know what you think. His study includes a special thanks to the Iowa Press Association which provided information.

What makes Martin’s report timely is that he acknowledges the many different business models being considered as print advertising declines across the industry and technology giants soak up a majority of the digital dollars.

Spoiler alert: Martin’s conclusion favors non-profit structures — at least for now.

We need to “rethink what happens with newspapers going forward,” he told me. “People want journalism but it’s difficult to pay for it.”

Martin selected eight news operations in Iowa to explore different structures. They range from metro and community daily newspapers to family- and privately- owned weeklies to employee-owned publications to regional operations to non-profit, online-only newsrooms that are supported by grants and donations.

The organizational variations then allowed him to establish these 10 “dimensions (that) contribute most to resiliency”:

  • Local ownership. “Local owners are more vested in the community and treat newspapers like a necessary asset, not a fungible one,” Martin writes.
  • Centrality of journalism to the business.
  • Nonprofit status.
  • Nonprofit funding support. His examples demonstrate a boon and a struggle.
  • Diversified business.
  • Commitment to community.
  • The health of the local economy.
  • Little or no reduction of newsroom staff. “Staffing cutbacks — including furloughs and layoffs — have done the most damage to the quality of journalism in the sample.”
  • Historic reputation and civic institution status. “The dimension of reputation is a bit like the Biblical passage about how no one is a prophet in their own land.”
  • Lack of competing local media.

In his concluding section, Martin offered two immediate solutions to consider:

  • Employee stock-ownership plans to maintain local ownership. Martin notes two in Iowa: Cedar Rapids and Dubuque. “ESOPs deserve more attention as an option for newspapers. They aren’t good at reviving failing newspapers (and it would be unfair to saddle employees with a losing investment), but they have been used more often when private ownership is coming to a close with non next-generation successor. Instead of a typical buyout or merger, ESOPs can be an option in sustaining local, community-oriented ownership.”
  • Postal subsidies to reduce expenses for small newspapers that use the Post Office to distribute their publications. Martin pays homage to the history of the Postal Act of 1792, which “helped make newspapers a flourishing part of the fabric of life in the United States.” He suggests newspapers of today should be “freely distributed by the U.S. Postal Service.”

In our phone discussion, I asked Martin if resilience was the same success-oriented path as Relevance.

Not necessary, he said, though they could be vital twin strategic objectives for newspapers.

If a newspaper is not relevant, readers are not going to pay for it, Martin said. ” Most resilient newspapers are most relevant to advertisers and readers.”

Thumbs up here.

Added context on the group publishing Martin’s study:

“The core mission of the Center for Journalism and Liberty is to ensure that the news media of the United States and our democratic allies is fully independent and robustly funded in the 21st century’s digital economy. The Center’s work is guided by the belief that government plays a fundamental role in structuring news media markets and business models to ensure that neither the state nor any one or few private actors control the words or actions of reporters, editors and publishers. The center focuses on policy solutions with regard to privacy, platforms, business models, and content integrity.”


E&P Magazine Spreads The Relevant News

The Relevance Project thanks Evelyn Mateos and Editor & Publisher Magazine for calling attention to our Revenue Resource 2020.

E&P highlighted the article in its morning newsletter today.

The headline: “The Relevance Project Rolls Out Campaign to Help Newspapers Enhance Sales Efforts.”

The details included this crisp quote from Newspaper Association Managers (NAM) President Steve Nixon:

“We hear the publishers’ need for revenue, revenue, revenue. So, we’re combining research, resilience and rallying calls in one emerging online resource that’s free to all newspapers. We think that’s a great definition of being relevant to our colleagues.”

Right on.

Stay tuned for 2021 developments.


Majority Rules? Pandemic Accelerates Digital Share Of Ads

If your newspaper is a monopoly with little or no competition and has a lock on local advertising, you can stop reading here.

To the rest:

Last week, The Wall Street Journal highlighted a report from the world’s largest ad buyer (Group M, a unit of WPP PLC) that estimated advertising spending in 2020 — and in 2021.

It didn’t get much attention. Enter Relevant Points:

  • *First, an important first. “More than half of the U.S. advertising spending is set to go to digital platforms such as Google and Facebook.”
  • *”The milestone is just the latest proof of digital advertising’s meteoric rise, which has concentrated ad spending with several tech giants at the expense of other platforms, including newspapers, local television and magazines.”
  • *Marketers are expected to spend $110.1 billion on digital ads this year, or 51% of the total $214.6 billion total U.S. advertising-spending forecast. This doesn’t include political ads. Next year, the expectation is for U.S. ad spending to grow 12% to $240 billion, and digital advertising to account for $130 billion, or 54% of the total.
  • *Some context about the acceleration:
  • “Three years ago, digital ads accounted for just one-third of all U.S. spending, Group M said — about the same size as newspapers, radio, magazines and local TV combined. As of 2020, these latter four categories’ combined share of the U.S. advertising market has shrunk to 21%.”
  • *A chart accompanied the WSJ story depicting the estimated U.S. digital ad revenue market share in 2020: Google, 29.8%, Facebook, 23.5%, and hard-charging Amazon at 10.2%. That means the Big 3 snagged 6 out of every 10 dollars.
  • *Pause and reflect on this insightful quote from GroupM’s global chief executive, Christian Juhl, that offers direction for community newspapers as well: Facebook, Google and Amazon “have done a good job of showing ad performance — and when they show performance marketers shift dollars.”
  • *Finally: “GroupM expects the pandemic to accelerate the downward trends for print. It predicts that next year ad spending in newspapers and magazines will decline 12% and 8%, respectively.”
  • Community newspapers can buck the “expert” predictions in 2021. It will require more hard work, an intense set of priorities, strong execution, and, yes, a little luck (think vaccine).

What to do?

Focus on smart initiatives to better document how newspaper ads — print and digital — deliver the best results. Share the Juhl of a quote above so those words motivate you and your staff.

Continue to bundle print and digital to attract the biggest audience for your advertisers and sponsors. Be creative.

Hammer home the the biggest point that giving the Big 3 local dollars doesn’t pay for local journalism that’s needed now more than ever by your community.

The brutal fact is the pandemic has more consumers spending more of their time and money online. In turn, the COVID lockdowns are causing local businesses to “flock” to digital advertising.

Follow the money.


Don’t Allow ‘Contact Us’ To Be A Wall Of Confusion

Nothing is more important to a local newspaper than connecting with readers, advertisers and supporters.

So why is it so hard for people to learn how to contact us?

I spotted this Relevant Point by Judy Patrick, New York Press Association’s vice president for editorial development, in her weekly note to newsrooms:

As the coordinator of a Christmas event in my town, I needed to reach out to media outlets last week. I was stunned at how difficult it was to find phone numbers or email addresses for some news organizations anywhere on their websites. This isn’t limited to the media; I’ve hit similar walls with colleges, public entities and non-profits. But media companies especially need to make it easy for readers to reach out. While I understand the logic of forms that require the sender’s name, address and email, they’re off-putting.

Looking for a worthwhile project to jumpstart 2021?

If you are an association, consider reviewing — along the lines of a secret shopper — each of your members’ “Contact Us” information and offer suggestions on how to improve. Tout it as an added service.

Bonus: Consider a contest to celebrate who does it the best. Share the top practices and tips.

While you’re at it, make it a point to update the association’s ABOUT US page. When is that last time that was done? (Don’t worry, I’ll do the same for The Relevance Project as well.)

If you are a newspaper, raise the effectiveness of how outsiders can engage you.

Make it clear.

Make it simple.

Make it easier.

And while you’re at it, review how you respond.

Nothing frustrates readers or people trying to give you money more than not hearing back after they’ve knocked on your door.

No excuses.

I’d like to know what you find out from your new 2021 project. All ears here.
One more Relevant Point:

Don’t forget to update your copyright year online and in the paper on Jan. 1.


Thinking Outside The (Pizza) Box

Inspiration to find new revenue and efficiency is everywhere. Today’s Relevant Tip: Keep sharpening your power of observation to connect the dots. For example, I spotted this “new concept” during garbage day in my Richmond, VA, neighborhood. Who would have thought you could deliver pizza and pick up the discards at the same time. Brilliant flexibility! Win customers coming and going! Diversified revenue! Thanks for the chuckle, guys.


10 Things to Know About the Relevance Project

The change of seasons is a good time to rake in the fortune of benefits collected on The Relevance Project website.  As a reminder: It’s It displays the project’s purpose and includes the patrons’ vision.  The Relevance Project is brought to you by many supporters — the members of NAM, the Newspaper Association Managers. They are listed HERE. We appreciate you. So much has happened in the last few months that a benefits primer is in order. Feel free to keep this as a guide:

10 Things You Need To Know About The Relevance Project:
No. 1: Relevant Points.

Updated most weekdays, the Relevant Points blog offers insights, advice, best practices, trends and other items of vital interest to press associations and their community newspapers. Nearly 100 Points have been posted since July. Get updates delivered to your inbox by typing your email address in the sign-up box at the bottom of the page. Added note: All columns are free to associations to republish. A special monthly commentary is available as well. (Here’s November’s.)
The remaining nine compose the emerging Relevance Project Revenue Resource 2020, where the focus is to promote the power of newspapers and to document how newspaper ads work. Special appreciation goes to Metro Creative Graphics for its outstanding design work on behalf of The Relevance Project. 

No. 2: The All Together Now Campaign.
This series of three messages is intended to win over advertisers dealing with pandemic restrictions, including shutdowns. It reminds local merchants that community newspapers are their best choice in providing expert assistance to welcome back customers and attract new ones. Besides, we’re dealing with the challenges as well. Let’s all recover by working together.

No. 3: 15 Powerful Calls To Action.
Newspaper ads work! Our additional proof is 15 categories where newspaper ads motivated at least 6 out of 10 readers to take action, according to research by Coda Ventures. These flyers and promotions should open doors for sellers. The 15 ad categories are: apparel, auto, circulars/preprints, coupons, educational services, eyewear, financial services, grocery, home services, office supplies, retail advertising, jewelry retailers, insurance, home furnishings and dental services. The facts and crisp design offer a winning formula. 

No. 4: Postcard Formats. You can convert the 15 Calls to Action into a postcard and send to potential clients. Yet another conversation starter. 

No. 5: Election Season. It’s never too early to develop connections and presentations to capture political-campaign ad dollars. (If you’re in Georgia, the elections continue with two runoffs for the U.S. Senate.) This section starts off with a series of three messages on why newspapers are impressive routes to informed voters. 

No. 6: Helpful Advice.
We’re excited by this section’s potential. No doubt, it will grow and grow as we select interesting best practices and great tips from smart people. These handouts are meant to share. Spread the knowledge. 

No. 7: SPECIAL OFFER: The Local Market Advertising Solution. This amazing benefit is the result of a partnership with Metro Creative and Pulse Research. It features five categories — heating and air conditioning services; banks; jewelry stores; optician or eyeglass stores; and continuing education services — where a newspaper can obtain data FROM ITS SPECIFIC MARKET on projected household spending. Accompanying FREE teaser ads help explain the market data and then can be used to contact the businesses to set up an appointment. The market research was collected during the pandemic and it is outstanding intelligence that gives newspapers a distinct edge. 

No. 8: Related Spec Ads.
As part of the SPECIAL OFFER, Metro Creative offers 10 different versions of already-designed ads for each of the five categories to show potential advertisers. With ads ready to go, the chances increase for a sale during a call and presentation. Sell, sell, sell. Tap into Metro’s rich archives as part of this SPECIAL OFFER. 

No. 9: A Bonus. You’ll find one more section containing additional spec ads for the other 10 Calls to Action categories. No excuses. Just download them. Again, walking in with a ready-made ad is bound to impress. 

No. 10: THIS JUST IN — 2 new promotional campaigns. One is headlined: “Support Local Journalism.” It’s a series of three messages about the importance of supporting local newspapers. Build on them with local content.  The second is titled: ” When Local News Fails.” It’s a different angle to stress how vital trusted local news is to the health of communities and democracy. Both campaigns are based on Margaret Sullivan’s 2020 book, “Ghosting the News.”

There you have it: 10 benefits to take to the bank.  What’s ahead? The Relevance Project’s new Advertising & Marketing Task Force will focus on providing support to the press association’s ad services.  We’ll tout the effectiveness of print and digital advertising, email marketing, sponsored or branded content, and other services that deliver solutions for clients looking to reach more customers.  Also, we’ll keep adding Relevant Points and promotions, especially those that advance local newspapers as THE Community Forum. 

It’s been a quick six months for The Relevance Project. But we’re just getting started.  In 2021, we’ll  continue to sharpen the project’s mission with a bias for action that strengthens community newspapers.

In the meantime, remember:  Always Stay Relevant.  Onward.