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Los Angeles Times executive editor Norm Pearlstine sent an urgent memo to the newsroom on Monday. It was a punch in the gut to many of the reporters who received it.

“We had hoped to double digital subscriptions this year, to 300,000,” Pearlstine said, in the past tense. He revealed that the first half of the year had been disappointing. “While we added 52,000 digital subscriptions,” he said, “significant cancellations during the same stretch left us with a net increase of only 13,000.” So right now the paper only has about 170,000 digital-only subscribers — a fraction of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

Pearlstine’s memo encapsulated the bind that so many print newsrooms are in. Almost everyone accepts that print is going, going, gone and that digital subscriptions are the smartest path to survival — but the path is poorly lit and booby-trapped and littered with corpses. Rank-and-file staffers don’t know what they should be doing to help convert readers to subscribers. And that’s one of the reasons why the memo rankled reporters.

Poynter’s Tom Jones, who has been leading the way on this story, said Pearlstine’s out-of-the-blue message “left his staff furious.” So Pearlstine convened the newsroom for an all-hands meeting on Thursday and said he had screwed up by sending the memo before meeting as a group. But he reiterated that upping subscription #’s has to be “Job One.” The conversation went on for two hours. Reporters expressed their frustration with the business side’s failures. Pearlstine, in turn, introduced some key new hires from the business side. He said he wanted the newsroom to know more about the strategic plan and what it’s going to take to achieve it. Both sides agreed that the past leadership of the paper didn’t communicate well. It’s been a little bit more than a year since Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong took control of the LA Times, and people are still adjusting…

What I’m hearing…

The LA Times is in the midst of an exhausting newsroom union contract negotiation. The contract limbo is definitely a factor in this week’s tensions. So I spoke with LA Times sources on both sides. All agree that “churn” is the fundamental challenge. As NiemanLab’s Joshua Benton wrote earlier this week, “once you get all those subscribers signed up, you’ve got to prove yourself worthy of their money, over and over again. Churn has always been an issue for newspapers, but it’s even more of one in a world of constant competition for subscription dollars.”

In this world, where the LAT and the WSJ are effectively competing with Netflix and Spotify, news outlets have to build habit and loyalty. At Thursday’s meeting, reporters “raised a lot of issues with pervasive customer service problems,” one source said. For example: Who’s in charge of subscriber retention? Why does it seem broken?

The editors acknowledged some of this and said the LAT has come a long, long way in the past year. “Six months ago,” another source said, “we had a bad website, broken search, no CRO, no one local running consumer marketing, a CMS we didn’t control and couldn’t edit. And no newsroom data leads or culture of using numbers to inform decision making.” Now the infrastructure has been improved in half a dozen different ways, the source told me, so it’s time to involve everyone in this uphill battle: “We’re now ready to create a culture where we start using data to examine what we do, what’s most valuable to our users, and what’s less valuable. The goal is to help everyone be smarter about where to focus our attention.” This is what newsrooms big and small are up against…

Further reading

I know I plugged Benton’s piece yesterday, but it’s really worth plugging again — to understand how news outlets need to approach these subscriber challenges…

HERE’S THE BIGGER PICTURE…

Papers going from “daily” to “weekly”

Many publishers “are now seriously modeling and planning for the transformation of their businesses from seven-day newspapers to something… less,” analyst Ken Doctor reported Thursday, citing numerous industry sources. “And not just a little less — significantly less.”

Doctor suggested that some papers will shift to a print on Sundays / digital the rest of the week model. Others will take more measured steps. But the point is that “we are on the brink of seeing major cutbacks in daily delivery and daily printing of newspapers, as soon as 2020.” Read on…

Pew: 1 in 4 papers faced layoffs in 2018

Katie Pellico writes: Per a new Pew study out Thursday, 27% of large US newspapers “experienced one or more publicly reported layoffs in 2018.” Pew looked at 97 newspapers with Sunday circulation higher than 50,000.

The good news: This is down slightly from 32% in 2017.

The bad news: Nearly one-third of the papers that faced layoffs dealt with more than one round of them. Also, “the number of jobs typically cut by newspapers in 2018 tended to be higher than in the year before.”

Also… Mid-market papers with higher circulations fared worse: 36% of those newsrooms faced layoffs in 2018. Read all the finer points…

>> In her sum-up of the study, Poynter’s Kristen Hare offers a glass half full with “a few much smaller but still important data points” and success stories…

The “dying gasp of one local newspaper”

Katie Pellico writes: The demise of the longstanding, small town weekly newspaper The Warroad Pioneer is documented in stunning detail in this new story by NYT correspondent Richard Fausset.

This, Fausset warns, is the news desert The Pioneer left behind in Warroad, Minnesota: “No hometown paper to print the obituaries from the Helgeson Funeral Home. No place to chronicle the exploits of the beloved high school hockey teams. No historical record for the little town museum, which had carefully kept the newspaper in boxes going back to 1897.” Keep reading…

“What happens when the presses stop rolling?”

The NYT asked “several industry innovators — three founders of local digital operations, and the architects of a program aimed at bringing legacy newsrooms into the digital era — to share their visions of what local news can look like without a local newspaper.” Hear from Bene Cipolla, Sarah Alvarez, Douglas Smith, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott here.