Tow Behind The Scenes: #ThisIsTucson and the future of audience-first news products

By Sara Sheridan

In early January, in collaboration with the Tow Center, the Arizona Daily Star’s digital-only, community news vertical #ThisIsTucson released a report outlining the work that went into creating its membership program. The program, which launched right as the coronavirus pandemic decimated local news across the country, has been a unique success story from a year rife with cutbacks, closures and crises. The full report can be found here. We talked with the two journalists who spearheaded the project at the Star and who authored the report, Irene McKisson and Becky Pallack, about what it was like to launch a brand new news product in 2020. McKisson is general manager for niche audience engagement and Pallack is a product manager at the Star.

What was the impetus to start this project?

McKisson: Revenue (laughs). #ThisIsTucson is unique and while revenue is really a focus of what we’re doing, we think a lot about audience and editorial and how that’s connected to sustainability in the local news ecosystem. We had already done the hard work of building a very loyal audience. And building a membership [program] felt like an obvious next step.

Pallack: At the beginning, we spent a lot of time talking to real audience members about what they might want from a membership program. And some of the things we heard were really simple but really important, like which words to use (“membership” was a clearer ask than “subscription”). So, we learned a bunch of stuff like that slowly at the beginning so that we could speed up toward building the right thing.

Where did you ascertain the skills and the processes needed to build a membership program?

Pallack: I learned mostly from being involved with the local startup community — things like innovation framework concepts. And then Irene had this amazing background in audience development and social media, and already knew how to build a loyal and trusting audience. Our two backgrounds together added up.

McKisson: We had the entrepreneurial spirit, or intrapreneurial spirit, to fix problems. And we’re reporters. We ask people things all the time. So that natural newsroom curiosity to deliver quality information to our audience was already there.

What would be, in your opinions, the key takeaway that you could offer to other newsrooms looking to replicate this?

McKisson: We asked people what they wanted, which isn’t always the first thing that people think of when they work with news products. We have this tradition in local news of building things and assuming people will read them — we put all of this reporting work and design work and print work into these things that the editors think are a great idea or an advertiser thinks is a great idea or the publisher thinks is a great idea. We put it out there, and then we walk away and go do something else.

But that doesn’t work in digital journalism, because if not enough people see or engage with the work, the advertiser is not going to be happy. The reporter who worked for six months is not going to be happy. The publisher is going to think that we don’t know how to do our jobs. And so building a thing that you know that people will read or view ahead of time (because you already asked them) is a really powerful way to get things done.

Was there any part of the process that was particularly surprising to you or particularly challenging or both? Other than the obvious, the pandemic?

McKisson: The pandemic was a little bit helpful to us, I think, because it gave us a revenue stream in a time when we were losing money from advertising. But it also gave us a catalyst to ask for support: “We have pivoted to help you through this. You can help us through this, by supporting us through membership.”

Pallack: Another thing we learned about people who are likely to become members is, they just want us to tell them why. And so, if we tell them like, “The reason we need your help is…” they’ll do it. This type of language was an easier ask at the beginning of the pandemic.

Do you think that same model could be applied to a different type of vertical other than localized lifestyle?

McKisson: I can see it working for sports in a limited way. For anything where I think you have an audience that is very devoted to what you’re creating, I think it could work. What we’re doing is much closer to an NPR membership: you do it because you listen a lot, you get value out of your connection to the product, and you want to support it because of that.

Pallack: What’s exciting to me is that more journalists want to take on innovation roles wherever they work, whether that’s a startup or a nonprofit or legacy newsroom with verticals like ours. I think #ThisIsTucson and our local teams here will continue to use innovation processes that we’re learning and refining, and I think it could grow in popularity in other newsrooms too.

How do you think this fits into addressing the local news crisis, in terms of being a viable product for added revenue?

Pallack: I think one of our goals for this was to try and take some of the learnings from big, giant journalism and try to apply them at the local level. Big, giant newspapers are selling a lot of digital subscriptions, and they’re doing micro-products like newsletters. Local journalism can do those things too, it’s just going to look different.

McKisson: We talk a lot about the audience funnel. *All the people* at the top are casual readers who… we’re trying to bring into our ecosystem, and we want to move them down into the funnel where they become really loyal users. And at the bottom of that funnel is membership. And so, all the work we do, all the editorial work we do leads naturally toward membership. And if all the work the reporters do leads to memberships, that solves so many problems — revenue, audience, editorial content. Everything lines up so nicely when your revenue solution is audience-focused. At its core, digital advertising or regular advertising is for a client, for an ad client, it’s not for your audience. And so, that’s the problem we’ve been trying to solve.

What do you expect over the next six to 12 months for the membership program?

Pallack: Right now, it’s a minor revenue stream and we need it to be a major one. So, it’s just figuring out how to grow it. And that’s the ongoing work of it, is just keep asking for support.

Despite the challenges of being in local news right now, you both sound hopeful about the future.

McKisson: I think knowing what we know, we are hopeful. Where I’m not hopeful is where you run into the red tape and stubbornness at a local newspaper. Like many newsrooms in our mid-market size, we still have this planetary pull toward print that is really hard to escape. We’re very tradition bound too and breaking out of that cycle is hard. But anyone can do it.
Newsrooms are so full of problem solvers. It’s just a matter of explaining to leadership how something like a membership program would work and why.

Pallack: Just knowing that there are steps you can follow to innovate for your audience is very empowering. Anyone can do it, and journalism needs a lot more innovation from a lot more perspectives and from many different types of people.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism