With advertising becoming a less reliable source of revenue for the embattled journalism industry, more news outlets are turning toward sources of consumer revenue to shore up their coffers. This rise of subscription and membership models has dovetailed with the rise of audience engagement in recent years, as newsrooms seek to build stronger relationships with their audiences. But scant attention has been paid to revitalizing approaches to customer service, which poses a problem because support teams are often the first or only point of contact for many customers.

Bad service, in other words, means a bad first impression and ultimately a bad reputation.

Scant attention has been paid to revitalizing approaches to customer service at news outlets, which poses a problem because support teams are often the first or only point of contact for many customers.

That’s why the American Press Institute decided to take a deep dive into how customer service functions should evolve as news outlets place greater emphasis on consumer revenue and audience engagement. It’s critical that these organizations strive to make their interactions with customers as satisfactory as possible, especially since there is a direct link between the quality of customer service and subscriber retention and acquisition.

We also see customer service as an opportunity to rebuild trust with audiences during a time when public trust in American media institutions is at an all-time low. Besides helping resolve routine issues for customers, such as subscribing and cancelling, customer support representatives may also hear complaints about the journalism or tips that may inform reporting. That’s why they need to be prepared to handle feedback in a way that builds — rather than reduces — trust in the organization.

In fact, during this time of great polarization, strong service can help retain customers across the political spectrum. As Joellen Easton, director of audience at Bangor Daily News, told us, “If someone skeptical of the newsroom has issues with the product they have purchased … we can still build trust with them through excellent customer service.”

For this report, part of the American Press Institute’s series of Strategy Studies, media consultant Anita Li interviewed around a dozen newsroom leaders at a diverse array of U.S.-based news outlets about their successes and barriers when it comes to improving customer service:

  • Chapter 2 explains why it’s essential to break down silos and integrate departments for better, more streamlined communication.
  • Chapter 3 takes a close look at how to optimize online processes, like purchasing or canceling a subscription, by making them as frictionless as possible.
  • Chapter 4 shows how to invest in hands-on approaches to service, and provides successful examples.
  • Finally, Chapter 5 outlines how a leadership team should take strategic risks and test out creative customer service strategies.

News outlets can no longer afford to see customer service as an afterthought in this new era of journalism. People who reach out through these channels care enough to engage with their news provider, so poor experiences with that organization’s frontline reps can ultimately cause them to disengage. Don’t let that happen to your organization — it’s time to bring customer service for journalism firmly into the 21st century.

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