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Nearly half of local news subscribers visit the sites they pay for less than once a month, analysis finds

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The article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.

Nearly half of local news outlets’ digital subscribers are “zombiereaders who visit the website less than once a month, according to a data analysis in 45 markets by Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center.

Spiegel found that 49% of subscribers didn’t go to the websites they had paid for even once a month, putting them in a category known in news-industry slang as “zombies.

An article on the Better News website drew gasps last week by reporting that The Arizona Republic was facing a 42% “zombie” population when it started a subscriber retention campaign a few years ago.

“Most subscribers are either complete ‘zombies’ or almost a ‘zombie,’” said Ed Malthouse, Spiegel’s research director.

Spiegel’s analysis found that while 49% of digital subscribers didn’t visit even once a month, 54% visited the website just one day a month or fewer, 58% visited two days or fewer, 69% visited seven days or fewer, and 79% showed up 15 days or fewer.

Spiegel’s new analysis also backs up its groundbreaking finding in 2019 that reader regularity is the paramount factor in whether subscribers stick around or churn.

In this new analysis on 45 local news outlets it has worked with in recent years, Spiegel found that subscribers who visited the website once a month or fewer were far more likely to drop their subscriptions than those who read more often.

“Our analysis suggests that purposefully creating the habit of regularity among digital subscribers is the single most important factor for news organizations to focus on if they hope to grow digital revenues.

Spiegel is participating in the Medill Local News Initiative, a three-year-old project at the Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications that promotes financial sustainability in local journalism.

Spiegel’s data analysis on local news outlets is about to take a major step forward with the launch of the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index, a tool that will give local news outlets more actionable intelligence on their readers than ever before.

Malthouse said there are steps that news outlets can take to turn “zombies” into avid readers.

Also, Malthouse said, “We need better recommender systems,” such as emails that tell a customer when there’s news on a subject they’ve followed in the past.

“News organizations need to do a much better job of helping readers find the stories that they’re interested in,” he said.

The point of the Better News story by Gannett’s John Adams and Alia Beard Rau was that a news outlet can lower its percentage of “zombies” by taking concrete steps, as The Arizona Republic did with the help of the Gannett-McClatchy Table Stakes program.

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for Poynter, suggested that some news outlets may not mind “zombies” so much if they help their statistics.

But the customer lifetime value is far less, Malthouse said, citing Spiegel’s analysis.

“I think every community has a certain percentage of people that want to support that local newspaper even if they’re not accessing it as much as you’d want them to,” she told the Medill Local News Initiative in December.