Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of local newspapers in the US. As part of a project for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Dr Christopher Ali and I have interviewed more than 60 editors, reporters and experts, as we seek to understand the state of this industry.

During these conversations, the Dallas Morning News has consistently been identified as an exemplar; a legacy publication which has successfully evolved and prospered in the face of digital disruption. As a result, based on our discussions with VP and Managing Editor Robyn Tomlin, here are seven lessons that we wanted to share with readers of TheMediaBriefing

1. Be prepared to pivot your paywall

Paywalls remain commonplace in the US, although a broad range of subscription models are being used across titles and regions.

Following attempts to deploy a hard paywall, and later a mixed premium vs free site, the team has now employed a third approach: the metered model.

However, this isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. As Tomlin explains:

“The number of articles you can see is different if you are in-market versus if you are out-of-market. So, if you are coming from an IP that is in the DFW/DMA (Dallas Fort Worth/Dallas Metropolitan Area), you can actually read more articles before you hit the meter, even though those people are the most likely to pay for the journalism we do.” 

“And part of that’s because when you think about the valued and valuable audiences that we reach; we really want to engage local audiences so we want them to come back and we want them to see value in what we do.” 

“It’s funny,” she adds, “because we’re all so focused on scale, on the biggest number you can get, that you lose sight of where the value is.” 

2. When it comes to advertising, think local

Around third of their digital audience is local and “40-50 percent is in Texas,” Tomlin told us. Nonetheless, the local audience is more valuable, she notes, delivering a higher CPM, and being the primary focus of their advertising efforts.

“We’re able to get a premium on advertising that we’re able to serve to local readers. And so we’re trying to balance that, being able to reach the largest local audience that we can and serve ads that are valuable to them, because they’re coming from the local advertisers who want to communicate with them [alongside a] need to try to find a subscription model that works.” 

Within this, audiences tend to gravitate towards three main brands – the main Dallas News brand, GuideLive, an entertainment brand, and SportsDay. Each brand is approached differently. 

 “We don’t have a meter on entertainment because that audience is very much sort of a more millennial Gen X audience and we’re actually sold out in terms of the ads on that site. It was redesigned with this sort of different approach. And since we have a really great advertising value, we’re not putting a meter up on that site at this point.” 

And, as others have done, the paywall can be dropped. When a shooting in Dallas this July led to five police officers being killed, the paper took down the paywall on news content for six days.

3. The future of advertising may be hyper-personalised

This is an area Tomlin believes may develop further, with insights from second and third parties being “layered” on top of their own data. 

“We’re not totally there yet – but we foresee a moment where we would be able to look at a user coming into the site and say… it’s more valuable to us for us to give them more free articles, because the value of the advertising that we can get delivered to this particular person – because of the targeting – is more valuable to us than the potential of losing them if we hit them with a meter.”

Similarly, Tomlin suggests, the opposite might also be true.

“…Based on the profile of this person, we may do better trying to limit the number of free articles because they are more likely, if we are, they’re more likely to be a subscriber. So, we’re looking at what’s the right path to engage people based on the information that we know about them. [Data] That was never available before.” 

4. Data is increasingly important for content teams too

It’s not unique, but Tomlin describes a newsroom where analytics play a growing role in content creation and dissemination. This includes: A/B testing headlines, introducing a more algorithmic approach to their website, and harvesting insights from tools such as the American Press Institute’s “Metrics For News.”

These applications help shape and inform the Quartz-like “obsessions” each reporter is charged with, as well as the types of stories the paper covers:

“The stories that do the best for us, in terms of reaching audience, are stories that are either immediate or have great depth… A lot of the stuff in the middle, I would call it the muddy middle, they don’t do as well. And so, we’re trying to push our journalists … away from the stories in the muddy middle to more things that are immediate and more things that have greater depth in order to try to serve the reader needs better in a digital space.”

5. “The challenges around culture change are gigantic”

In March this year the paper completed an extensive period of buyouts and restructuring. “We redefined every single job,” Tomlin recalls, “and then we had everybody on staff to reapply for jobs.” 

Organised “principally around verticals” the results were substantive:

“Fifty percent of our newsroom are in jobs that are different than they were in a year ago, which is pretty tremendous. And we eliminated whole departments that we had. We added new ones. For instance, we did not previously have an audience team.” 

“I would say the thing that a lot of newsrooms have not done is invest in audience development,” Tomlin observes, noting that previously “audience development was nobody’s full time job.”

Following the restructure, there’s now a dedicated team “that handles social, and newsletters, and the homepage, and all of the different distributed media platforms that we’re experimenting with.”

“That was a big change,” she acknowledges. 

6. Paying tribute to the past, whilst reimagining it for the future

Outside the Dallas Morning News’ HQ stands the “Rock of Truth.” Carved into it are the core values of founder George Bannerman Dealey. This physical presence, Tomlin says, means staff “walk through and feel the weight of those values in front of us every single day.”

“We don’t wanna lose that,” she adds, “but, at the same time we need to be able to adopt new values that help move us into a new era of journalism and those are the things that we’ve been trying to do.”

For Tomlin, this means embedding values and culture through new products, workflows and structures, as well as the way you tell stories. One significant change at the paper has been to their traditional meeting structure.

“We used to have a typical newspaper 1A meeting where they would come in and editors would recite, “Here are the things that we have going on,” and there would be discussion about what the 1A options might be. We don’t do that anymore.”

Instead the day kicks off at 9am with a session called “the Headline Rodeo,” led by the audience development editor.

“Every editor or producer from our different vertical teams come in and they write proposed headlines, what they’re thinking the headlines will be for some of their best stories on a whiteboard, and then everybody in the room goes up and they vote. They put a hash mark to represent a click, like, ‘This is something I would read.” And then we talk about the headlines that work and we talk about the headlines that don’t… What works for digital audiences is dramatically different.”

7. Income diversity

“In Dallas, I think we’ve weathered the storms better than many other places,” Tomlin states. Alongside restructuring the print product and personnel, the company has also actively sought to diversify its revenue.

“Our company and our CEO, who’s really amazing, Jim Moroney, [made it] a priority years ago in saying we need other sources of digital revenue to try to supplement what we’re going to get from the straight advertising.

And so, they purchased and/or built an events company, a content marketing agency that does that social media management for companies, a company that does SEO and SEM management for other companies, a company that primarily manages like analytics and date management for other companies, a company that does mixed marketing products like t-shirts and koozies and pens, print and distribute that stuff to different companies.”

This diversification has created an ecosystem that all of these companies can sell against, with Tomlin commenting how “the increases in revenue from those companies has helped to lighten the blow from the loss of circulation or print.”

Diversification, coupled with increased subscription costs, sit alongside non-revenue raising events and experiments on emerging platforms like Facebook Live.

“Those are scary things for all of us,” Tomlin concedes, “nobody wants to put all your eggs in any basket. But not to be trying and testing and learning is probably equally risky.”

“That’s the strategy; to try to buffer against some of the other losses that had been out there. But even still, you know, it’s a challenging environment, and I don’t think anybody would feel any differently.” 

Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon, a Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, an Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

His project for Tow (with Dr. Christopher Ali), Local News in a Digital World: Small Market Newspapers in an Era of Digital Disruption, examines how small market newspapers in the United States are responding to the shift to digital technology in everything from editorial content to distribution to advertising. It will be published in early 2017.