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.