Take The Atlantic, for instance; it’s more than 150-years-old and is experiencing the most successful run in the company’s history. And it’s doing that on the back of digital media. On the flip side, look at a brand like Refinery29, who turns just 13 this year and is approaching a billion-dollar valuation, which it built entirely on a digital infrastructure.
The point being, while age can help build a legacy, it doesn’t automatically grow your publishing business. Digital does. And that’s something the 120-year-old Jewish culture publication, The Forward, figured out nearly two years ago when it hired Rachel Fishman Federson as its publisher.
Like many niche publications, The Forward boasts a very loyal audience. But what it lacked was the right content delivery vehicles to serve its loyal readers. That not only prevented the publication from growing in an increasingly digital-first landscape, but it also created inefficiencies.
Fast-forward to today and several things have changed at The Forward—from its publication offerings, to its distribution strategy. Given this, we wanted to hear more about this ambitious transformation, so we sat caught up with Fishman Feddersen to hear how this 120-year-old publication is redefining itself while maintaining its core mission to serve its Jewish readership.
Folio: So what’s new at The Forward?
Rachel Fishman Feddersen: What isn’t new? We’ve made business changes and editorial changes.
I joined The Forward about a year and 10 months ago, and have been CEO a little over a year. I was brought in to lead us through a digital transformation. I know that’s a phrase that’s getting a lot of use, but what’s different here is we are a 120-year-old organization and we have made a lot of changes in just a little bit over a year. But this is part of The Forward’s history of reinventing itself as its readership changes and the delivery system. But our commitment to Jewish journalism has remained the same.
Folio: Can you expand on the changes in your readership and delivery system; and how you’ve made adjustments for both?
Fishman Feddersen: So the forward prides itself on fearless journalism, and cultural celebration and has been a touchstone of the Jewish community for a really long time. We, however, had not evolved the product. When I came on we were printing a weekly and, the fact is, we were hearing more and more from our readers that they weren’t reading the paper much because they had already read it online. We have a robust newsletter as well. So the weekly wasn’t serving its reader. We thought a lot about the readers and if they’d be devastated if we lost the weekly. But what we found is they weren’t reading it anyway. So we switched from a weekly to a monthly.
We have readers who love print and we knew deleting that product would be a problem. We didn’t want to anyway. We love print, too. But all of our staffs’ energy was going to a product where the readers weren’t.
Folio: How has that impacted your business? Did you lose any subscribers?
Fishman Feddersen: We did worry about losing a substantial amount of subscribers, but we didn’t lose any. We went to a glossy monthly and we also launched our pay meter. So the time was right to put in a pay meter. By now, most readers understand that if we have something worth reading, they should be willing to pay for it.
Those two things together have given us a higher readership than ever before. And the cost per acquisition is much lower and our churn rate is pretty low. So all those things are going in the right direction. The meter is less than a year old so we don’t know when we will top out. We still think there’s opportunity for us.
Folio: So your organization also does mission-driven work as a non-profit. Can you explain how your business model works and how it supports your organization’s mission?
Fishman Feddersen: We have three revenue streams: ads, subscriptions and donations. Advertising has the least upside for us. We think we can do better, but we are reinvigorating the business in other ways while the advertising landscape is grim. When we look at the niche we’re in, we are better off focusing on the readers. We still want advertising, but we think more around subscriptions and donations. And in both cases digital is playing a more important role.
Folio: One of the big challenges for publications these days is winning time in an attention economy. So besides making yourself accessible on more platforms and maintaining a commitment to journalism, what are you doing to remain relevant and top of mind with your readers.
Fishman Feddersen: We don’t have any revolutionary strategies, but we are doing a lot of the things you might expect. We have newsletters, including a daily and a weekly. We have an another email that comes directly from our editor-in-chief, which looks forward to the week ahead. We also have a culture and women’s newsletters. So we have niches within our niche.
And of course we’re on social, but don’t depend on it. so thankfully the Facebook changes haven’t impacted us much.
But what’s kept us relevant is our history and commitment to fearless journalism.