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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Publishers try a fraction of the news for a fraction of the cost

April 21, 2022 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Media Reporter @EstherKeziaT

As the subscriptions race has intensified, media companies are turning their attention to the substantial segments of their audience who aren’t willing — or financially able — to pay for a full subscription. Some are returning to the tried and true tactic of lower-cost ad-supported offerings, while others have doubled down on putting the plus in premium

News brands have always run the gamut from super-premium to completely ad supported. And some have speculated that the trend of premium digital news offerings – with the notable success of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Financial Times – bodes poorly for readers in search of quality and value. And the proliferation of low cost or free offerings can often overwhelm, and even under-inform when consumers actually avoid the news

It’s possible that a new approach is emerging which may address these issues – and offers premium brands a way to expose a broader range of consumers to their content. 

A financial case

Last month, Financial Times launched a new lightweight offering called FT Edit. The app offers readers eight hand-picked stories every weekday for just £0.99 per month.

Though it has amassed 1.2 million subscribers to date, FT has traditionally attracted a certain kind of subscriber due to the high-end financial news it covers. A typical subscriber is of a higher income, with an interest in or working for the financial sector. Its most affordable digital package, which ranges from $40-$69 a month (£35-£55) would be a stretch for those who don’t need specialist financial coverage. If a consumer is after more general news, plenty of other organizations have more affordable subscriptions.

But increasingly, FT is gaining a following outside of its financial journalism. Part of that appears to be the result of making certain facets of its broader scope publicly available. Its coronavirus coverage was the first to be made freely available in March 2020. It currently has a page dedicated to free-to-read coverage of the Ukraine war “to keep everyone informed as events unfold”.

“We are known for financial news, and we’re incredibly strong at our core product. But we produce a wide breadth of news that matters, and I don’t think people really know that about the FT,” Assistant Editor Janine Gibson explained. “We weren’t really sure whether people wanted to read our free stuff more than anyone else’s, but it was very, very, very successful.”

Creating a more affordable product

The team began to see that there was a much wider appetite for their journalism. The conversations started to turn towards what a much lower-cost product would look like for the publisher. Their research about what people wanted came back with a core message: a simple product with a start and end point. Something more reflective, analytical, and deeply reported – but also expertly curated. 

“There’s a different thing happening in the world of quality journalism. People understand that paying for quality journalism is vital, but they don’t necessarily have the resources or the appetite for the full, unexpurgated experience,” Gibson said. 

Within a matter of months, FT Edit was conceived. Not only is the price point low, the limited offering provides a concise and digestible solution to too much news.  The company says “the purpose of FT Edit is to provide an alternative to endless scrolling, allowing readers time to digest eight important stories selected for them each day. It will launch with the strapline: time well read.”

An audience-centric approach

The concern for many publishers considering this option is cannibalization of the existing subscriber audience. But Gibson sees the audience for FT Edit as adjacent to their core subscribers, not competing. 

“This app isn’t here to solve a problem for a news organization,” she explained. “So many digital product launches over the last decade have come from a position of weakness, like ‘We need to replace this revenue gap’. This is, is there a wider audience out there at a lower price point for the FT? But we don’t need to offset the cost of what we already do.”

“The price point really reflects the commitment from the board and the chief executive to genuinely saying, ‘I would like to expose a much wider audience of people to some FT journalism.’”

Now, the app will go through some tweaks to find out how many stories each day works best. It is early days, but should the app get a good response in the UK, Gibson said a dedicated US version with content curated for a US audience would follow.

A bracing shot of news

FT is not the first publisher to experiment like this. The Economist’s Espresso app is the most well-known example of a separate, lower cost, lower quantity subscription offering. The recently updated app, launched eight years ago, was introduced as a daily digital briefing to complement the core magazine, with short pieces of news and analysis. It was marketed as a quick ‘shot’ of news to get readers ready for the day.

Espresso is included as part of The Economist’s full digital subscription. It is offered as a standalone app for $7.99 (£7.99) in the UK after a seven day free trial. Those who don’t choose to subscribe can still read one article a day. 

The publisher has been working on an upgrade of the app over the past few months. The new version delivers Espresso stories in both written and audio form, alongside charts, facts and quotes each day. It also includes a ‘For You’ tab that lets the user sample four stories a week from the main Economist site, based on their interests.

“The new Espresso is aimed at readers who may not have the time or inclination for the more in-depth Economist experience,” a spokesperson told us. “We see it as introducing a new generation of readers to the Economist brand.”

“We imagine that, over time, some will migrate to an Economist subscription as they come to appreciate the role that our full journalism offerings can play in their lives.” 

Is an app the perfect outreach product?

The question of affordable quality journalism is likely to become ever-more pressing as more publishers turn to reader revenue. From the Washington Post to Bloomberg – and even The Smith’s yet unlaunched Semafor – the market is saturated with publications targeting the global elite who barely blink at paying hundreds of dollars a year for news access.

The challenge for publishers looking to attract a wider audience to quality journalism is pricing for access. This is where paid products like apps or even newsletters can be a good way of building a relationship with readers without asking them to pay premium prices. 

The longevity of Espresso and the initial success of FT Edit also demonstrate that audiences respond well to content with a start and a finish point. Aside from the obvious parallels to print newspapers, a carefully curated, high-quality set of stories is now seen as a refreshing antidote to the endless scrolling, misinformation, and frantic news cycle. In other words, for a tiny fraction of the cost, you get a tiny fraction of the news: just what you need to know, concisely offered and expertly crafted and delivered.

Now, limited is in demand. A small bundle of stories well-packaged for mobile could be the key for other publishers to unlocking their vast untapped audiences who haven’t yet opened their wallets.

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