How a Small South Texas Daily Is Building a Profitable Digital Future

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The Victoria (Tex.) Advocate, the second-oldest daily newspaper in Texas, was founded in May 1846, several months after the embattled Republic of Texas became a state and just days after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War.

The family-owned Advocate, which serves a nine-county South Texas market of 250,000, has been printed mostly without interruption for 171 years, but it has stepped boldly with both boots onto the digital landscape, which, in many respects, is still much of a frontier, and not just in South Texas.

In this Q & A, Publisher Dan Easton tells how digital readership and revenue keep the Advocate editorially and financially vibrant as the print paper’s reach and revenue recede:

Just how important is your digital edition compared to your print edition?
First, we should define “digital edition.” If you are talking about the “digital edition” in the context of ALL our digital content publishing, including our desktop and mobile web, our e-Edition, and our social media channels, then it is extremely important. For readers, it’s important for breaking news and multimedia content, but delivered in a convenient format that can be consumed anywhere.

How many print readers and how many online readers do you have?
Our print circulation is 18,000 to 25,000, depending on the day of the week. Our online readership is 15,000 to 20,000.

How many digital subscriptions do you have?
We have very few digital-only subscriptions. Most of our subscribers, which we call “members,” have an all-access membership that allows them both print and digital.

How big is your digital ad revenue?
All digital revenue is about 30% of our total revenue. However of that, about half of our digital revenue is from publishing. The other half is from our digital marketing and full-blown agency services.

Many clients of our mostly digital non-advertising services were not traditional newspaper advertisers, so we never had a reason to talk to them in the past. This has opened up a whole new line of business for us.

What’s your strategy for the Advocate and Facebook?
We have embraced the shift toward a socially-driven mobile audience, which means that we use social media aggressively to cultivate a large audience (40,000 Facebook followers in a city of 65,000) and drive them back to our responsive website that is very mobile-friendly.

We’ve recently started pushing people to comment via Facebook within our website pages instead of on the Facebook pages themselves. We did this because we had noticed that as we started sharing our content on social, the conversation started to drift to those platforms instead of our own sites.

The [Facebook focus] had a number of drawbacks, including financial, but also ended up with commenters who hadn’t even read the story. We’ve taken several steps to try to move the conversation back to our sites, and the preliminary results are encouraging.

How many of your online readers are mobile-first compared to those on desktops?
66% mobile, 26% desktop and 8% tablet on our website.

What’s your revenue strategy?
Like many news sites, a significant portion of our revenue comes from display.  However we are bit of an odd duck in that most of our display is sold as “share of voice”, which just means that we sell our spots by the day instead of by the impression.

We feel this has a number of benefits over impression-based sales, including a more focused impact on the business and creating scarcity for spots.

We also use surveys to generate revenue, but beyond just typical Google surveys, we’ve implemented our own survey platform we call Trend, which allows us to build a profile around our readers over time and then retarget them all over the internet on behalf of our advertisers.

We also have the typical classified revenue streams, although these are challenging, to say the least. We have a native strategy that is fairly typical. We also have some email newsletters that could be developed further. Of all the typical local digital media strategies, we are probably lightest in developing video.

What do readers want from the digital Advocate, and are they finding what they want?
That’s a good question, and hard to know for sure. Readers of our e-Edition are few, but they are extremely loyal. They are nearly daily in frequency and spend 20+ minutes per day. Compare that to the meager one to two minutes on our website, and the real question is how we convert more of our readers from the drive-by, social-to-mobile, to habitual readers.

But on the web they really just want to know what’s going on in the community, and we do a great job of that and getting stuff posted online very quickly.

What do advertisers want from the digital Advocate, and are they getting what they want?
Advertisers want to reach buyers as efficiently as possible. And this is the fundamental problem of the digital news business. Advertisers don’t really care how they reach those buyers, which means that the more efficiently you can aggregate an audience of buyers, the better for that advertiser. Unfortunately high quality news content is expensive, while silly cat videos are cheap, yet both can build an audience, and if both audiences turn out to have buyers for our advertiser, they have equal value in their eyes.

Lately there is some attention on the quality of the content around the advertising, so we’ll see where that goes, but I don’t think it alters the fundamental value equation for the advertiser.

Is the Advocate profitable?
Yes, the Advocate is profitable.  It is difficult to say exactly where our digital edition sits in that equation because we don’t do a great job of separating out all costs. I can say that our total revenue trends have outperformed the newspaper industry and I think that’s in part to our digital efforts.

What’s your next major step with the digital Advocate?
I want to figure out how to cultivate more habitual readers. Right now most digital news content consumption is “one and done.” Yet we can prove that there are habitual readers out there who will spend 20 minutes or more per day with us online. But the web browser is an absolutely awful news platform. It’s like trying to have an intimate, in-depth conversation with someone in a Las Vegas casino.

We’ve got to give readers a chance to develop a habit of reading local news, but that will never happen if we keep on the current path of social-to-mobile browser. Several of our colleagues have made progress with initiatives along these lines, but I think there is a lot more that can be done. Some will never become habitual readers, but none will if we don’t give them that opportunity. I think that’s an important next step in our evolution.

What, specifically, might you do to create more habitual readers — entice them to the e-Edition or make the web browser less of a “Las Vegas casino”?
Newspapers are one of the few businesses which view the web browser as the platform for their end product. Most businesses view the web as a sales and marketing tool. I think we probably need to take a lesson from that.

Apps seem to be a much better platform for delivering our product in a way that protects our content, our advertisers and the user experience, while having the best chance of developing habitual readers.

To build habit, we need to provide a sense of a beginning and an end. Readers frequently tell me they never know if they missed something when reading on the web. Both a beginning and an end are provided by our current e-Edition, but the experience still leaves a lot to be desired.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.