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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The state of news subscriptions – and a newsworthy approach worth considering

December 12, 2019 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe – Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe

Doggedly following the pace of the duopoly and facing falling print revenue, they anxiously watch as an increasing number of rivals drop out. And let’s face it, the route has only continued to slope uphill.

The next great hope is in digital subscriptions. Over the course of 2019, revenue growth was strong for many of the larger publishers that have been investing in subscription marketing and retention. The New York Times – effectively the poster child for news subscription success – reported its highest ever subscriber total in August: 4.7 million paid subscriptions across digital and print, of which close to 3.5 million are digital. Times’ CEO Mark Thomson said: “We’re making steady progress toward our goal of reaching 10 million total subscriptions by 2025.” A big part of that, as we’ve previously reported, is by converting young people to paid subscribers.

Meanwhile, the Guardian achieved its ambitious break-even target of financial stability by mid-2019, as 655,000 regular monthly supporters and a 300,000 one-off contributions buoyed their balance sheets. This suggests that readers do not necessarily even expect exclusive content to pay what is effectively a subscription in all but name. Similarly, Wired has claimed success after introducing a paywall in 2018, announcing a 300% increase in the number of digital subscribers.

Nor do the titles need to be international in scope to make successes of paywalls: a few years after launching a digital subscription the Shawnee Mission Post has over 2,500 subscribers. That’s more than enough for a local title that employs three people full-time. In the UK, too, more regional titles are launching paywalls as well. Some of JPI Media’s newspapers with larger circulations are currently trialling paywalls, too.

Overall, WAN-IFRA’s World Press Trends report found that: “Digital news subscriber numbers worldwide have increased 208% over five years to 2018 and are expected to grow by a further 13% in 2019.”

Smart paywall strategies

Small wonder then that so many news publishers are following the leaders and attempting to make digital subscriptions a larger part of their business strategy. There are countless examples of investment into smart paywalls, better retention efforts, and into data tools designed with the sole intention of signing up users.

That’s not to say that erecting a paywall is a guarantee of survival. Joshua Benton’s in-depth look into the L.A. Times’ disappointing subscription results in July makes it clear that if even one of those areas of investment is neglected, the result is that a publisher can be left running in place. They face failing to sign up sufficient subscribers or worse, a loss of existing ones.

A fear of fatigue

But the real shadow that falls across any conversation about paywall success is the term ‘subscription fatigue.’ Despite encouraging signs that readers have not yet reached this critical tipping point, the worry looms large. Essentially, it’s the tacit acknowledgement that audiences only have so much disposable income, that people are far more likely to subscribe to multiple entertainment products than a single news one, and that the people who have already subscribed were effectively the low-hanging fruit.

That last point was referred to in Wired editor-in-chief Nick Thompson’s one year paywall retrospective. He said, “We don’t know if they’ll resubscribe (please do); we don’t know if they’ll ultimately pay higher prices (please do); we don’t know if it’ll be as easy to get the next batch of people to join (please do).” Of those concerns, it’s the latter which is the most pressing.

Who pays?

In the UK, for instance, only 7% of people currently pay for a digital news subscription (a tiny increase over the previous year). On the face of it, that gives publishers a lot of headroom for growth. However, they’re up against competition for finite disposable income with entertainment services like Spotify, Netflix, Disney+, PlayStation Plus, etc. According to the latest Ofcom Media Nations report, for instance: “Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Now TV and Disney Life – increased from 11.2m (39%) in 2018 to 13.3m (47%) in 2019.”

That’s broadly in line with other findings, which demonstrate that people are far more likely to prioritize entertainment content over news. In fact, WAN-IFRA found that younger people –  on whom many publishers are pinning their hopes –  are less likely to prioritize a news subscription: “Just 7% of under 45s would pick news over everything else for the next year, compared to 15% of those 45 and over.”

What is news?

With relatively sluggish growth for news subscription numbers and the implication that it is seen as a luxury for young audiences, can publishers combat the potential “subscription fatigue” among audiences and prove they are as vital as an entertainment subscription? For most audiences, the reality for the foreseeable future is that entertainment will be prioritized. So, is it just that publishers need to reappraise what a successful ‘news’ subscription looks like?

A report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, in collaboration with the News Media Alliance and the Star Tribune, found a positive correlation between people’s willingness to pay for entertainment and news. Their findings suggest that people’s increasing willingness to subscribe to entertainment is a tide that floats all boats.

It follows, then, that the way younger audiences think about subscriptions to both entertainment and news is similar. And, ultimately, they want unique content in a format that suits them best.

Bridging the divide

For instance, a paid-for subscription to something like a news podcast could help close that divide between entertainment and news. Media analyst for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism Nic Newman recently told me: “Publishers are really finding it hard to reach and engage with younger audiences. It’s not ‘news’

For instance, a paid-for subscription to something like a news podcast could help close that divide between entertainment and news. Media analyst for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism Nic Newman recently told me: “Publishers are really finding it hard to reach and engage with younger audiences. It’s not ‘news’ [that’s the problem], it’s about how you create content that is interesting, engaging, fun… But is also meaningful, and to me that’s where the daily news podcasts are hitting all those spots at once.” Notably, NYT CEO Mark Thompson has discussed spinning its flagship title The Daily off into a paid-for product in its own right.

In France, Le Monde is experimenting with a blend of news and entertainment content, with its three new podcasts being explicitly in service of squaring that circle. As Digiday’s Lucinda Southern notes: “French news publisher Le Monde has launched three podcast series adapted from investigative articles that have been successful at driving high numbers of new subscriptions.”

Subscription plus

So, it’s still vanishingly unlikely that every large-scale news publication will be able to sustain themselves through subscriptions alone. Many are already investing in non-news products to attract people to the top of the funnel. It’s also true that the first ones out of the starting blocks have an early mover advantage.

None of that is to say that news publishers should give up and transition entirely to entertainment content. Instead, they should be considering that the young people on whom much of their subscription success or failure rests are demonstrably interested in news content. Unfortunately, the vast majority of how that is currently presented on doesn’t necessarily convert or retain them.

Rather than attempting to push the fast news-based content that adds value once people are past the gate, publishers need to re-evaluate what types of content will lure younger audiences through in the first place.

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