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Best Practices

What makes a good Sustainable Publishing Solutions grant application?

We know that applying for a grant can sometimes be intimidating. You might not be sure if this is the right opportunity for your organization or what the review committee may be looking for. Or perhaps this is your first time applying for a grant.

As a way to demystify the process and help newsrooms interested in the Sustainable Publishing Solutions grant, we’re taking a look back at last year’s grantees and sharing some of their submissions to show what makes a strong application.

The application is open through March 31, 2021. 

You can also visit our website to find more information about this opportunity, webinars to help you get started, FAQs, and most importantly, a link to the application. 

The focus of the grant

The SPS grant is designed to help news organizations to invest in their technical infrastructure and adopt publishing tools that prioritize audience and revenue needs alongside editorial content production. Selected grantees can use grant funds towards the migration to a new CMS or build upon their existing publishing platform. Applicants will be required to explain how an investment in a new or improved content management system will help their organization increase revenue, grow audience, and improve user experience.

Example 1: Afro American News

How will this funding help grow your revenue? Please describe specific strategies.

Funding will help us to develop a membership program with various options to access content using paywalls. We will employ the following strategies to grow revenue utilizing contractors and part-time interns:

  1. Aligning sales and marketing strategies through email marketing campaigns and social media promotions to ensure our efforts are more cost effective and efficient;
  2. Setting up a paywall by requiring site visitors to pay for access to our membership site, thereby generating a consistent stream of recurring income;
  3. Enhancing our knowledge of reader preferences through usability research and adaptive algorithms enabling us to anticipate their interests and match relevant content to them;
  4. Firmly establishing our position as The Black Media Authority through branded original video content and podcasts;
  5. Identifying plugins and integrating with Alexa to enhance the reader experience for the visually impaired and;
  6. Optimizing our new membership offerings to provide a myriad of benefits to our readers and supporters, providing user/staff education and leveraging existing partnerships and advertiser promotions.

What makes this a strong response: 

They have numerous examples of what they’re going to do and how this grant will help them with multiple revenue streams including their advertising sales, email campaigns, and paywall. With each example there is a clear connection between the feature and how it will lead towards audience and revenue growth.

Example 2: Montana Free Press

How will this funding help grow your revenue? Please describe specific strategies.

This funding will help us create a better user experience on our website and make it easier to move readers into our membership funnel. Newspack will also make it possible for us to support advertising, a source of revenue we haven’t yet tapped.

The first step in moving users down the funnel to becoming financial supporters is to provide them with high-quality content that captures their attention and builds their trust in our reporting. We’ll deploy the dynamic storytelling tools included in the Newspack suite of plugins and Gutenberg blocks to make our reporting on complex issues and topics easier to understand and engage with.

Once we’ve captured readers’ attention, we’ll give them multiple opportunities to return to our website, engage with our content, and eventually subscribe to our newsletter. We’ll deploy a variety of tools including strategic use of pop-ups and targeted calls-to-action to make it easier for readers to sign up for our email newsletters or provide feedback. We’ll carefully monitor the analytical tools included in Newspaper to better understand audience behavior and inform our content delivery.

Our newsletter subscribers account for 36% of our average site traffic. Once readers subscribe to our newsletter, they tend to become regular consumers of our content. Currently, 18% of our newsletter subscribers are paying members. 

A different way to make the case: 

While Afro American News listed out specific examples of what they wanted to achieve, Montana Free Press takes a narrative approach. They contextualize their plan with baseline metrics and are clear about what features of their chosen CMS (Newspack) will help them achieve their goals.

Example 3: Carolina Public Press

How do you plan to use this platform to grow your audience? Please describe specific strategies.

A website that is faster, more robust and able to quickly and securely translate to mobile devices (an increasingly popular access point for viewers) will build audience interaction and increase page stickiness, a critical factor in increasing pageviews and audience loyalty. The platform will make online giving easier, faster and more effective.

CPP will utilize the strengths of Newspack to help it pilot a membership model and assess the feasibility of implementing a membership model by mid year.

The specific audience/user goals to be achieved in 2020 are:

  • Increase average monthly users by 15%, to 53,000 per month.
  • Increase users who visit on a weekly basis by 60%, to 40%.
  • Increase the number of subscribers by 37.5%, to 11,000.

More on metrics: 

Carolina Public Press goes even further with metrics by setting ambitious goals and understanding that a new CMS will be critical towards their ability to reach them. They also show they know where their audience is (mobile devices) and how they’re consuming that content.

Example 4: Muslim

Briefly describe why you chose this solution.

I chose WordPress as it is the most versatile content management system for our work, is accessible and familiar to our writers on-board. The Newpack plug-in will ensure we are news-driven with its functionalities and assistance.

How do you plan to use this platform to improve the experience for your readers? How is the user experience (UX) of your current site deficient?

Currently, our site is just a landing page for our followers to subscribe to our weekly newsletter. By switching from MailChimp to WordPress, we will improve the experience for our readers by having original content daily rather than depending on the end of the week for a roundup summary of top headlines of Muslim news. Instead, we will be able to start producing our own longform content and have an online destination for it that is independent of social platforms. The UX of our site is deficient as we do not have any functionality other than building our listserv.

What this response tells us: 

Just that last sentence alone demonstrates that they know what’s standing in their way. Sometimes it’s really hard to identify what’s holding you back, especially if you’ve been at it for a while. This goes back to understanding your organization’s knowledge gaps and building in the solutions or additional skills you need to not only migrate to a new website, but also maintain it.

Example 5: Que Pasa

Briefly describe why you chose this solution.

There are a few reasons we believe that it is more advantageous for us to migrate our site to WordPress. Our current Drupal site relies on several modules that were developed internally, and the site’s infrastructure uses multiple Amazon Web Services systems that we configured and administer ourselves. Given the level of customization and relative complexity of our current site, we believe it is unrealistic to expect to find a 3rd party that can make the necessary changes in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.

We have chosen WordPress as our CMS because there are more individuals and organizations who administer and develop on that platform compared with Drupal. We believe this will increase our options and reduce our long-term costs for the services and tools that will be necessary to design, maintain, and use our site. 

The opportunity to build a site from the ground up will allow us to make more informed decisions about the level of customization of our site. We now understand that customization, ironically, can also hinder a site’s ability to adapt to new demands and technologies. We hope to strike a balance between using well-established tools and methods and developing our own. Our goal is to have a site that is stable, sustainable, agile, and allows us to provide our audience with a better product.

What we loved about this response: 

They’re clearly thinking about staff capacity and what solution makes sense for their team from both a migration and maintenance standpoint. Que Pasa also is aware of the pitfalls of having a customized site and how it may limit them from evolving in the long term.

Additional Tips from the Hub’s Director of Member Strategy

When all is said and done, strong applications should address the following points:

  • A clear vision for how the chosen CMS will improve your growth goals
  • Awareness for how you’re going to implement the grant and what will be required of your team
  • Specifics on how you plan on measuring success

If you’ve done your homework and know how a particular CMS can help support your mission and how you’re going to make it happen, these things should be pretty obvious.

Another thing to think about, says News Revenue Hub Senior Director, Member Strategy Graham Watson-Ringo, is that “a CMS isn’t magic. Be honest with what you have at your disposal.” A new CMS is not going to immediately solve your issues without a lot of hard work, pre-planning, and dedicated staff time.

Graham, who has helped oversee a website migration from both the editorial and revenue perspective, offers some additional questions to think through as you work on your application:

  • What are the shortcomings of your current CMS? Why do you need a new CMS? What is it that you are trying to achieve? And how are you going to be able to measure that in a quantifiable way (did you have more visitors? Are you seeing less bounce rate on your pages? etc.)
  • Who’s going to teach the rest of your staff how to use the CMS? Who’s going to be in charge of it? Who’s going to be the point of contact with your provider?
  • Are you creating a better reader experience with the new CMS? Even if it is easier for your team, is it giving a poor user experience on the front end? Then maybe you need to figure out a different product.
  • Do you have the resources—both staff and financial—to sustain the CMS long-term? “In the end, if you get the grant, [those extra resources] will eventually go away, and you’re left there having to go, ‘how do I make this thing work?’”

If you haven’t already, be sure to explore our grant page where you can find more information about this opportunity, webinars to help you get started, FAQs, and most importantly, a link to the application.


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