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Reporters in the newsroom have access to data about what articles convert users to a subscription and use this, plus qualitative data, to create stories and formats that boost subscription.
Krautreporter is an independent, advertising-free digital magazine based in Germany, founded in 2014 off the back of a crowdfunding campaign that raised €1 million from 17,000 supporters. It is still Germany’s largest crowdfunded journalism project.
Krautreporter first started out as a crowdfunding platform for independent journalism. It raised a total of €200,000 for different projects and had a 70 per cent project funding success rate until it pivoted to become a magazine with the same name.
It has seven staff members and aims to produce long-form journalism that helps people ‘understand how the world works’. Their ethos is that journalists can work on a story for as long as it’s needed, and that stories can be as long as the journalists believe they need to be.
The magazine started with a freemium model but now has a ‘hard paywall’ – non-subscribers cannot see any articles without providing their credit card details for a trial or to become subscribers.
Krautreporter currently has more than 10,000 members paying between €5 and €9 a month to access its journalism.
Krautreporter was recently announced as one of eight new grantees of the Accelerator. It will spend six months creating a playbook and membership trust funnel that other organisations can try out for themselves.
Unlike other newsrooms, who do not share data with reporters about the performance of articles, data is made available to every reporter in the Krautreporter newsroom (see How it works day-to-day below).
Qualitative data is also important to Krautreporter. For example, they ask new users five questions when they register, including what do you study, what is your field of expertise and where do you have people you can contact in different countries? 36% of members have filled in this data, which allows them to find sources of expertise within their own subscriber database.
They also do regular surveys which allow them to know more about their overall readership. For example, most subscribers class themselves as politically central or to the left, and their education and income is above the national average. These insights are shared among the team.
Even before the crowdfunding campaign was set up, the team decided that traffic was not the KPI that they wanted to track because it was not appropriate for their ad-free, subscription model.
After two years of experimentation, the team began to closely track article conversions to subscriptions and now focus on that as their main KPI (key performance indicator).
Other secondary metrics the team pays attention to include article engagement (shares/comments), log in and return frequency, session length and pages and articles read by guests vs those read by subscribers. This gives them an overall picture of the health of their subscriber base, although they would like to know more (see What did they learn?)
This is in addition to platform-specific metrics such as newsletter subscribers and podcast downloads and plays. The team has found, anecdotally, that the stories the team spends most time on (and which they are most proud of) tend to be the ones that convert best. These tend to be explainer stories.
Occasionally, there are stories that are surprising successes. For example, several years ago, they asked their 20-year-old intern to write about the changes to Germany’s welfare system in 2005 (which had cropped up in the news but which a lot of their subscribers were too young to know about) as if they were trying to explain it to their friends. It was in the top ten converting stories with a high proportion of younger readers signing up but also middle-aged adults interested in getting a refresher on the topic.
Every day at midnight, a Slack bot posts an automated message in a public channel with key metrics including current paying members, converted members and top stories for conversions. Reporters and editors check this first thing in the morning. There aren’t any screens or dashboards in the newsroom.
Everyone in the team has access to Chartbeat but only Rico and the team’s social media editor check it regularly (which they don’t feel is a bad thing as they aren’t focused on driving traffic). Checking it often allows them to spot what social media posts have performed well and can be published again later.
Every Friday, there’s an editorial meeting between 10 and 11.30am that everyone attends. The articles that have led to most conversions are referenced.
Co-founders and editors-in-chief Rico Grimm and Theresa Bäuerlein talk on the phone to reporters regularly and often use data in their conversations to justify commissioning a story.
Reporters get qualitative data about a story when they run it by the Krautreporter Facebook group prior to it being written. For example, this week, a reporter posted in the group asking for questions they’d like answered about Germany’s yellow vest movement (the reporter is planning to go to a protest this weekend). Only a few people replied so the team took this to mean either their community doesn't know much about the topic or doesn’t care about it yet. The reporter, therefore, knows she has to find out which of the two it is and plan the story accordingly.
Giving all journalists access to data about the stories converting people to subscribers changed the conversation in the newsroom and made everyone have a responsibility for the key metric. However, not everyone is familiar with other relevant metrics the team discusses. The editors are working out at the moment whether more training is needed.
Krautreporter found it can be hard to accurately measure the path to subscription. For example, when it occasionally drops the paywall on a story, it can get tens of thousands of visits but no conversions to subscription. However, on those days, the team sees an increase of conversions via the homepage, suggesting people are going there via the free article.
They found it’s hard to predict which stories will perform well. During the G20 violence in Hamburg in 2017, for example, lots of Germans were asking about the protestors and their backgrounds. The team found a man who posted online about why it was ok for left-wing groups to protest in this way and the team re-posted and linked to some of the posts. This performed well for subscriptions - while it wasn’t an original piece, it was a timely question that everyone was asking.
Data can be a useful force in the newsroom to inspire reporters and keep morale up. Rico found that reporters came in with stronger pitches when the magazine had several days when the number of subscriptions grew consistently. There’s a lot the team would still like to learn, including: factors and product issues that lead to a decline in usage of the site, or how readers convert to email newsletters and then to subscriptions. These will form part of the experiments Krautreporter is undertaking as part of their Accelerator grant.
“We quickly realised that the best KPI we have is new paying members. This captures well whether you’re doing good journalism.”
How would you improve it?
"We should train people more. Everyone understands the KPI and what drives new membership. There are other numbers that reporters see that they don’t understand.”
Frederik Fischer, Krautreporter’s head of audience engagement in 2015, explained the background to Krautreporter at the International Journalism Festival.
The Seattle Times is creating mini-publishing teams to figure out how to produce articles that drive subscriptions.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published a report in 2016 with lessons from 30 people working in audience data and editorial analytics across eight countries.
The Financial Times uses an in-house analytics tool called Lantern to make audience data more accessible to its journalists. They also have a clear data-driven strategy for online comments and audience participation, and a plan to get more women to subscribe to the paper.