How can newspapers build a successful reader revenue? This was the question at the heart of my project as Journalist Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. As part of the project, I interviewed 26 executives from 15 European newspapers, as more outlets are turning now to digital subscriptions to put their companies on a more sustainable path. My goal was to understand what these companies were doing at every step of the subscription process: from content strategy to pricing, acquisition and churn.
In February I published a long paper structured around these areas. The paper doesn’t analyze either the virtues of different pay models or the price of the offerings of every particular newspaper. Its main goal was to explain the strategies news outlets are applying to deal with the profound changes required by a subscription business in the hope that some could be used by other news organizations elsewhere. Here I publish an excerpt from the most important chapter—the one that examines how the best newspapers are reimagining their value propositions for the digital age. Here are some of the themes that came out during my interviews on the best ways to do that.
1. Redefine your value proposition if needed
The Guardian launched its membership model on September 10, 2014. According to a news article published at the time, the original scheme focused on “a rolling programme of events, discussions, debates, interviews, keynote speeches and festivals.” It had three tiers: friends, partners and patrons. Friends didn’t pay anything. Partners paid £15 a month and could get discounts and priority bookings for some of the events. Patrons paid £60 a month and had an extra level of access.
It was an important moment for The Guardian. A few weeks later, it would overtake The New York Times as the second most popular English-language newspaper website behind the Daily Mail. It had published scoops such as the Edward Snowden revelations and the phone-hacking scandal. It had just won its first Pulitzer Prize.
The newspaper’s finances, however, didn’t look good. Circulation had been cut in half in a few years. It had just posted an annual loss of £30.6m. It would lose £227m from 2009 to 2016. Part of those losses had to do with an expensive American expansion. The Guardian was the eighth player in a small market like Britain. The United States was a much bigger market and held plenty of opportunity. American readers were richer and much easier to monetize.
The American operation brought millions of readers but not enough revenue. With other British newspapers setting up paywalls, many people wondered whether The Guardian would follow suit.
The Guardian’s remarkable turnaround happened after it put its editorial mission at the center of the membership program
The Guardian’s membership model started to take shape at a readers’ conference in March 2012. During a session with Clay Shirky, editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger said the audience would have to pay to sustain the newspaper, then asked them a question. Would they prefer giving money to the newspaper as a cause or paying a monthly fee to get tickets and discounts? “Readers were incredibly unenthusiastic about tickets,” says Rusbridger. “But many were willing to give money so our journalism could be available for everyone as a public good. They saw The Guardian as a cause.”
Consultants hired by the business side came to the same conclusion but the board didn’t believe it. “They thought it was editorial moonshine,” says Rusbridger.
The original membership model, built around editorial events, didn’t take off. It gathered around 12,000 members in the first year.
At the end of the fiscal year 2018-19, The Guardian reported over 655,000 regular supporters. Around 365,000 were members and recurring contributors. The newspaper also received over 340,000 one-off contributions.
This remarkable turnaround happened after the newspaper shut down its event business and put its editorial mission at the center of the membership program. The management changed tack when the data didn’t support the initial vision. After all, they realized the plastic bucket was more powerful than any loyalty scheme.
“People on editorial are not good at things like logistics and flexible pricing,” says Rusbridger. “But commercial people sometimes don’t trust that incredible bond between the reader and the journalist. They don’t quite get that. We had published an incredible range of stories throughout the years. So many people said: ‘I will support you because we think you are what a newspaper should be.’”
2. Focus on your digital product
Two-thirds of the revenue of Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter still comes from print. But its leadership decided to focus on the digital presentation as if print didn’t exist. “If your goal is to build digital loyalty, you have to start from digital quality,” says Martin Jönsson, head of editorial development at the newspaper. “That means reviewing your metrics to understand the needs of your readers, then change into a positive spiral where more quality attracts more subscribers and gets you more revenue and more journalists.”
After adopting digital subscriptions, Dagens Nyheter started creating innovative formats such as VR and audiobooks. As a result, they’ve attracted a different audience: much younger, more female and less urban. While 73% of their print circulation is sold in Stockholm, 60% of their digital subscribers live in other cities. “We are reaching new people,” says Jönsson. “So we have to understand how these new readers define quality and what we can do about that.”
Some of the things Dagens Nyheter has done will sound familiar to other publications. They’ve expanded their team of investigative reporters and increased the number of foreign correspondents. They’ve launched a new app with quizzes and crosswords and published audio versions of all of their long-form stories.
This is something Danish digital magazine Zetland also did at its members’ request. “Today 65% of our usage comes from audio,” says Lea Korsgaard, Zetland’s co-founder and editor-in-chief.
3. Stop doing stuff (really)
As part of their efforts, journalists at Dagens Nyheter tried to identify the kind of stories very few people read. They cut the number of articles they published by 15%. After doing that, they managed to increase traffic. Le Monde and The Guardian have also reduced their output with similar results.
Keeping your focus is really important when running a reader revenue model. Spanish journalist Ignacio Escolar faced a similar challenge after founding eldiario.es in 2012. He didn’t want to create another general-interest newspaper but one with a sharp focus on politics. As its audience grew, Escolar considered publishing sports news after being approached by a group of sports journalists.
“It didn’t go well,” says Escolar, founder and editor-in-chief of eldiario.es. Their members complained with blunt emails: “I’m not paying you guys to know more about the Real Madrid matches.” The sports coverage didn’t create either substantial ad revenue or new members and eldiario.es dropped it.
4. Create great user experience
News sites across the world are realizing that content is just one of the aspects of their value proposition. Loading time, packaging and presentation are important too. Younger audiences are used to the high standards set by digital platforms such as Netflix or Spotify.
The Guardian has a two-fold reader revenue strategy. It encourages memberships and one-off contributions. But it also offers a more transactional proposition for people who want to experience its journalism in unique ways. “Content is free and will always be free,” says Richard Furness, managing director for consumer revenues and publishing at the newspaper. “Our subscriptions are about creating an experience that is so compelling that people will pay.”
“After doing many tests with our readers, two needs came up time and again: ‘I’ve got two minutes and I want to catch up quickly with what’s going on’ and ‘I want to read beautifully presented long stories.’” —Richard Furness, The Guardian
The Guardian offers several options: several print and digital bundles, an £11.99 monthly subscription to the iPad edition of the British newspaper and a £5.99 subscription to a few features of its premium mobile app. For this monthly fee you can customize the home screen, follow your favorite writers and have access to a couple of exclusive tabs:
- The first one is called Live and it’s designed for news junkies who want to keep up with the news.
- The second one is called Discover and includes a selection of long reads.
“We created these features after doing many tests with our readers,” says Furness. “Two needs came up time and again: ‘I’ve got two minutes and I want to catch up quickly with what’s going on’ and ‘I want to read beautifully presented long stories.” Both tabs are really popular right now.”
5. Build products your readers can finish
Readers love the sense of achievement that comes from finishing a daily edition. In a digital environment dominated by endless feeds, finite products are quite appealing. “Journalists should remember that their job is not publishing as much as they can, but editing what is important,” says Richard Furness, from The Guardian.
In October 2018 Furness helped relaunch Guardian Weekly as a glossy magazine with three different editions: international, North-American and Australian. Most of the pieces published in Guardian Weekly are not commissioned for the magazine. Its editor is there mostly to edit down and curate journalism that already exists. The lesson for Furness is clear. “You should think about the content you produce every day, then do something interesting with that content and sell it as a subscription product,” he says.
The Times’s Crime Club newsletter is the U.K. paper’s most popular newsletter, with a 70% open rate
News organizations are betting on the renewed appeal of daily or weekly editions as a way to recreate the news habits of the past. This trend is behind daily podcasts such as The Economist’s The Intelligence and The Guardian’s Today in Focus. It’s also what’s fueling the rise of newsletters as a way to engage with the audience without depending on algorithms.
Publishers use newsletters for different purposes. They can be just a tool to bring casual readers further into the acquisition funnel. They can also enhance the newspaper’s value proposition by providing value to underserved audiences.
A great example is The Times’s Crime Club newsletter. It gives reviews, free ebooks and event tickets to crime fiction fans. It’s the most successful newsletter at The Times with a 70% open rate. A big news story can also be a great opportunity for a pop-up newsletter. Catalan newspaper Ara published a daily email during the trial of 12 separatist leaders over their role in 2017 Catalonia’s failed independence bid.
Digital editions come in many flavors. Every week Ara publishes a PDF dossier with essays and infographics about a topic. These dossiers could be as long as 80 pages. Topics are evergreen and wide-ranging, from Marxism to Europe, obesity and sex. According to Maria Llambí, Ara’s chief marketing officer, dossiers get downloaded more than 15,000 times a month. Most of their content already exists and is repackaged for this new format. Dossiers have their own metered paywall. Only subscribers have unlimited access. Registered users can download five for free.
Both Le Monde and La Repubblica have experimented with simpler digital editions with some degree of success.
In November 2014, The Economist launched Espresso, a daily briefing with five pieces, a quick roundup of the daily news and a smart quotation. According to Lane Greene, language columnist of The Economist and editor of Espresso, pieces should have around 155 words and fit in a phone screen. Every article should have a news peg, a surprising fact and a takeaway. It should be an opportunity to look at a bigger trend too.
Espresso has editions for Asia, Europe and the Americas and it’s available in the main app of the magazine. Every subscriber can read it, but it’s also sold as a cheaper, separate subscription for £2.49/$3.99 a month. 60% of Espresso’s revenue comes from subscriptions. The rest comes from advertising. It is sent as a newsletter, but most of its audience read it through The Economist app.
6. Rethink what to publish and when
In March 2016, The Times announced it would stop covering breaking news. (The paper only does live updates for major breaking news events.) Instead of posting quick updates on developing stories, it would publish three daily editions at 9 a.m., 12 p.m. and 5 p.m. The management decided to do this after reviewing the data. “The message [from our readers] was very clear,” says Alan Hunter, head of digital at the newspaper. “They valued us for our insights, our analysis and the authority of our reporting, not for the ability to catch up very quickly.”
The Financial Times hasn’t retreated from breaking news, but it’s acting more like a broadcaster. A few years ago, most of the British newspapers were still publishing the bulk of their content online around 5 pm. As a result, there was a perfect asymmetry between when readers were reading and when journalists were publishing. It was bad for search too. When surfacing news articles, Google takes into account factors such as home page promotion and freshness of publication. Pieces published in the afternoon were harder to find.
“This realization led to a slow, finally successful shift in publication habits,” says Renée Kaplan, head of audience and new content strategies at the Financial Times. “Now we’ve evolved from a print distribution culture to a broadcast distribution culture, with pieces published throughout the day.”
7. Less could be more
“I read The Economist cover-to-cover because its content makes me think critically about the world,” tweeted Bill Gates in July 2018. Some people at the newsroom saw this statement as a mixed blessing. “There’s a whole universe of new subscribers for whom The Economist is an overwhelming experience,” says Denise Law, until recently head of product at the magazine. “That doesn’t mean we should exclude them. It means that we might need to do a better job at tailoring to them.”
These readers find it hard to get through the magazine each week. When old issues start piling up on their coffee table, they start feeling guilty about not being able to get through it. Law calls this “the New Yorker effect” and it’s one of the main reasons people cancel their subscription to the magazine.
The “New Yorker effect” is one of the main reasons people cancel their subscription to The Economist
The Economist’s new app tries to solve this problem by integrating Espresso and giving the reader a few daily picks. “We’re not going to make [the app] like a never-ending Facebook feed. We pride ourselves on being the trusted filter on the world. You come to us because you trust our judgment,” says Law.
The Economist’s strategy makes an important point. The product you sell offline could be overwhelming or useless for a digital audience. The most successful news organizations think thoroughly about packaging and presentation and invest their limited resources on the platforms that are popular among their most loyal audiences.
8. Cherish your brand
Many newspapers still treat their digital products as separate brands. They fill their websites with second-rate articles and publish their best pieces just in print. However, audiences don’t distinguish a printed newspaper from its digital products or its social media feeds. In a world increasingly fragmented, the values of a brand should be present in everything it does.
“If we sell oranges through [our service] Oferplan, it’s because our readers trust our brand. You can’t do an event on the new developments in science if you have a website full of clickbait,” says Fernando Belzunce from Spanish media group Vocento. Denise Law, from The Economist, shares a similar view: “Every single piece of journalism we do, regardless of the platform, needs to be done to a high standard.”
As part of their subscription strategies, some newspapers attach their brands to particular values. Spanish conservative newspaper La Razón creates content related to five values: diversity, the environment, the traditional family, the fight for the rights of people with disabilities, and the unity of Spain. “Selling content is very difficult. So most of our campaigns are associated with those values,” says Sergio Rodríguez, head of digital at the newspaper.
Spanish newspaper eldiario.es faced a difficult moment during the Catalan crisis in October 2017. “In the first few months, many people cancelled their membership,” says editor-in-chief Ignacio Escolar. “Some thought we were too supportive of the pro-independence movement. Others thought we were too much against it. Many organizations on the left faced a similar challenge.”
Escolar and his colleagues managed to change this atmosphere by creating “A call for a dialogue,” a section where intellectuals, journalists, and politicians wrote short pieces calling for building bridges between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. “This project got us hundreds of new members and strengthened our position as an independent voice at a moment where most newspapers were hugely polarized,” Escolar says.