A long-time legacy print newspaper publisher, DC Thomson has four main daily news titles, one of which, The Press and Journal, celebrated its 275th birthday this year. They also own numerous other media brands, covering sports, business and entertainment; Beano, the world’s longest running weekly comic; a genealogy platform and a tech services business. 

However, after years of print circulation declines, DC Thomson decided in 2019 to undertake a large-scale digital transformation to adjust their news workflows, which were 95-percent print based, to produce more meaningful digital content for today’s news consumers.

One of the things they did was to join Table Stakes Europe, a WAN-IFRA initiative in partnership with the Google News Initiative.

Read more about DC Thomson’s Table Stakes journey here.

‘How can we help them?’

“We’re not just a traditional publisher anymore, we’re very focused on communities,” says Richard Prest, Head of Content Development at DC Thomson. “It’s no longer enough just to talk about publishing news or magazines to those communities, it’s about:

How can we help them?
How can we engage with them?
How can we become their supporters and advisers and offer them information that improves their lives?

That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Specifically, the company has eight main communities they focus on, including: Local, Advocacy, Gen Alpha (for younger audiences), Hobbies (golf is a key one), Companionship, Mental Agility (puzzles and quizzes), Genealogy and Energy. Speaking at WAN-IFRA’s Newsroom Summit, Prest highlighted Local, which includes their news brands.

DC Thomson has four regional print newspapers based in two sites, Aberdeen and Dundee. The aforementioned The Press and Journal is the morning paper in Aberdeen, and The Courier is Dundee’s morning daily. In both cities, they also publish evening papers. Each of those four newspapers also had its own website.

As a result of the heavy print focus, Prest said they had no premium paid content online and few digital subscribers. Likewise, they had a limited understanding of their digital audience.

Their digital revenue was coming mainly from advertising.

Starting the transformation process

In 2019, the company realised they had to change.

“We started looking at reader revenue and subscriptions. We joined Table Stakes Europe, which was a hugely interesting process for us. Huge learning process as well. I remember the first meetings where we turned up and we did wonder. ‘We are so far behind everybody else.’ That’s how we felt at that point,” he said.

But they set to work, starting with some small steps and also planning some large ones, like refocusing their newsroom from print “to one where we will create high quality, indispensable digital journalism and a first-class user experience for local AudienceS (big S) to drive subscriptions through a premium / metered paywall.”

They aimed to do this by increasing their conversion rates and offering more premium content.

They also began experiments with trial packaging and pricing, and expanding their funnel to look for new audiences that they could test.

Once they got the readers, Prest said they also needed to retain them, which meant improving their onboarding process and overall user experience.

Starting small

Some of the first steps were small, but important.

For example, when someone subscribed, there was no onboarding process.

“One of the first things we did was get the editor to write out an email that every time somebody subscribed, it just went back and said ‘Thank you.’ Very, very basic onboarding, but for us, that was a first step.”

Then, they changed the workflows to become more digital and audiences focussed.

They also began offering more skills training to their journalists. “To give them the best chance of success, we invested in more training, better tools, so they could do their digital jobs and also dashboards so they could see whether they were being successful or not.”

KPIs for success

A key indicator for the company’s success at this stage was to boost the numbers of their paying subscribers.

“Our aim was to increase paid subscriber audiences by 50 percent to 1,200 by October 2020, and 2,000 subscribers by March 2021. You might think that’s a small target, but for us, that was a giant leap compared to where we were at that stage,” Prest said.

They then launched Mini-Publisher Teams (MPT), a Table Stakes concept where small teams provide extensive coverage to a specific audience, initially to test covering politics, crime & courts.

“There were a few teams that we launched at the start to see how they work, to test how they can best operate,” he said.

Then came Covid.

While some publishers might have decided to put large-scale change projects on hold because of the many uncertainties the Covid lockdowns brought with them, DC Thomson took the opposite approach and decided to push ahead “and do a whole-sale relaunch of the newsroom based on the MPT model,” Prest said.

For example, in the first iteration of their reorganised newsroom in 2021, the Mini-Publishing Teams were put in the middle of the newsroom because they covered a variety of audiences that were central to everything DC Thomson was doing, Prest said.

Alongside them were support teams, which included social, product and content development.

“Their aim was to make sure those teams – the reporters, the journalists who were writing for their audienceS – had the best chance of success,” he said.

Further adjustments and fine-tuning

Today, in addition to those 30,000 paying digital subscribers, their four websites have merged to two, one for each city.

“We quickly discovered through data and insights that the audiences for the morning website and the evening website were the same – they were jumping from one site to the other, so it made sense,” Prest said.

Furthermore, they’ve reshaped the newsroom again based on the learnings they had from the first version, which Prest said was critical.

That was vital to cope with issues such as news avoidance. Increased focus has been put on creating more features-style content which has to work digitally before being used in the print magazines attached to the newspapers. 

The print newspapers remain important, and there’s still a lot of revenue attached to them, “but we do that later, and we do it better because the content we’re producing digitally is much better than before. And it’s more targeted,” he noted. 

They’ve also developed their storytelling techniques considerably: For example, they’ve produced long-form video documentaries during the past few years, and also launched a true-crime serial podcast.

See also: DC Thomson’s investigative documentaries help engage audiences, drive subscriptions

“The people have been amazing and thrown themselves into everything,” Prest said of the efforts the staff has made.

New teams, events and challenges

Today, an insight and audience data team provides extensive information to the teams so they can adapt their content.

There’s also a product team and a subscriptions team.

In addition, they have hosted subscriber-only live events, one of which featured actor Brian Cox, who played Logan Roy on the recently concluded series “Succession.” Cox, like the foul-mouthed fictional media mogul he portrayed, is originally from Dundee.

It might all sound like it’s been easy, but Prest insisted that has not been the case.

And the challenges keep coming, from heavy cost-of-living changes to energy problems, and news avoidance.

Success from many sources

Furthermore, there was no single factor that has led to their success.

“The growth is the result of various changes across various teams and various departments all combining to lift us up there. We have everything from simple changes to our calls to action on the site, very early on our journey. That boosted numbers. We then introduced more premium content: that boosted them again.”

“We then launched a documentary that increased acquisition at that point,” he continued. “It’s multiple different factors, and different teams involved that have helped make that change possible. No one department can say they are responsible for the success.”

Today, they are better equipped to meet challenges. There’s more sharing of expertise, and the staff in general are talking to each other more, Prest said. 

“It’s constant evolution, I think that’s really important. Keep it going all the time and less of a Big Bang is needed going forward,” he said.

Prest also offered some advice to publishers who are struggling with their own transformation projects.

“Just get going. Just do it. Start small. Start with one team, two teams. Start with a newsletter. But the most important part is: Start doing it,” he said.

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