3 Leading News Organizations Serve as ‘Learning Labs’ for Local News Initiative Projects

Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star aim for insights and digital subscribers

Three leading U.S. news organizations are serving as “learning labs” for Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative, a project to harness data and other research tools to find ways to make local journalism sustainable.

The three outlets – the Chicago Tribune, Indianapolis Star and San Francisco Chronicle – have submitted terabytes of anonymous online reader data to Northwestern’s Spiegel Digital and Database Research Center for analysis. A key goal: to correlate reader behavior with what the researchers call “stickiness” – whether digital subscribers stick with the product.

Spiegel, which is a part of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, will identify online trends that may apply across the news industry, as well as share insights unique to the three outlets’ individual markets.

The three news organizations will receive some preliminary findings in December, and general conclusions will be shared with the industry and academic researchers early next year. The analysis also will be used by the Northwestern Knight Lab in developing new products, tools and approaches for local reporting. Northwestern announced the Local News Initiative in April with the goal of providing greater understanding of how digital audiences engage with local news and finding innovations to strengthen local news business models. But what do the three “learning labs” hope to get out of this analysis?

The short answer would be: more digital subscribers, says Ronnie Ramos, Executive Editor of the Indianapolis Star. The more involved answer would be … better data and understanding of what readers are reading and how they’re reading us and when.

In recent years, daily newspaper websites have focused on boosting page views, but the slide in ad revenue – often based on page views – has prompted many to turn more intensively to reader revenue sources such as digital subscriptions.

It’s pretty easy to figure out what people will click on, but it’s a whole ‘nother question to figure out what they’re willing to pay for and what will keep them coming back again and again.

Audrey Cooper, Editor in Chief of the San Francisco Chronicle

It’s pretty easy to figure out what people will click on, says Audrey Cooper, Editor in Chief of the San Francisco Chronicle. But it’s a whole ‘nother question to figure out what they’re willing to pay for and what will keep them coming back again and again.

The Learning Labs

All three of the “learning lab” news organizations are more than a century old, and all three have earned praise for their investigative reporting. Yet they are quite different, reflecting the histories and personalities of their market. Here’s a look:

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About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

About the project

What Drives People to Pay for Local Journalism

Medill’s Spiegel Research Center (SRC), a leader in consumer and audience-based research that drives financial outcomes, is analyzing many terabytes of anonymous data about reader behavior and customer motivation at three Learning Labs – the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star. The goal: Identify what content and behaviors drive consumers to engage with and pay for local news.

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