For years now, publishers have weighed paywalls and digital subscriptions as a solution to make up for dwindling ad revenues.

As it turns out, providing unique local content that creates regular reading habits that subscribers are willing to pay for might be the key in making those reader-based revenue models a success, according to a recent data analysis conducted by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

The study was part of the Medill Local News Initiative, a project led by a team of digital and business strategy experts aimed at helping the local news industry overcome its current financial woes.

Medill's analysis of reader data from the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star showed a direct correlation between regular habit and subscriber retention.

Analyzing the subscriber data of three large-city news sites, Medill looked at the various behaviors that might make readers willing to pay for the news. It discovered that the frequency of consuming local news is the single biggest indicator insofar as whether someone will keep paying for a subscription, regardless of how many stories those subscribers read in a single visit or how thoroughly they read them.

Medill partnered with three news organizations: The Chicago Tribune, The Indianapolis Star and The San Francisco Chronicle. Data scientists at Northwestern's Spiegel Research Center then analyzed 13 terabytes of anonymous reader data provided by these news organizations and measured what news consumption habits correlated with what subscriber retention habits.

The study revealed a strong correlation between regular habit and reader retention. That is, the more frequently a reader visited the paper’s website, the less likely that customer was to cancel their digital subscription.

The study also discovered that subscribers who read more than the average amount of stories per visit and those who spend more time reading them were no more likely to keep their subscriptions than those who merely skimmed. In some cases, according to the study, high reading rates and high reading time were actually associated with those who cancelled their subscriptions. The reasons for this apparent correlation, according to the study, are not yet clear.

The report comes as the New York Times announced better-then-expected fourth-quarter and full-year 2018 results, which included $709 million in revenue from 265,000 new digital subscribers last year.

Research for the Medill Local News Initiative study was conducted in the fall of 2018. According to the study’s authors, a follow-up study is now being planned to analyze subscriber behavior data at small and mid-sized news outlets throughout the Midwest, in an attempt to see whether Medill’s initial findings can be applied broadly.