After all the big media names and grand revenue strategies highlighted during the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in London, it was interesting to hear from two unconventional digital news outlets that are succeeding by bucking the standard approaches.

In Slovakia, 3-year-old Denník N, started by a group of journalists who quit a national newspaper in protest, shared their story of contrary editorial metrics, open-source software, admittedly empty subscriber offers, and basically working without a net. But as of 2017, this daily news magazine and Internet portal is making its first €20,000 profit.

“Now the hard part is how we can actually create something from scratch,” said Tomáš Bella, Denník N’s head of digital. “As an industry, we have a credibility problem. So much more people believe in experts than in journalists. So, if you are buying reportage, you have to believe in the paper. If you are buying our interview, though, you can actually hate the paper, but you are only buying it because you want to hear the opinion of the respondent.”

Tomáš Bella, Denník N’s head of digital, explains how a team of dedicated journalists barely scraping by built an established digital news outlet with support from a hybrid subscription-membership strategy.
Tomáš Bella, Denník N’s head of digital, explains how a team of dedicated journalists barely scraping by built an established digital news outlet with support from a hybrid subscription-membership strategy.

Operating at the other end of the resource spectrum is 5-year-old BILDplus, the holistic digital offspring of Axel Springer’s BILD tabloid, which once had the largest circulation in all of Europe and still ranks highly in Germany.

While BILDplus isn’t at all worried about not making a profit, it is still trying to find a foothold in the challenging digital revenue environment.

“If we think about making a sustainable business for the future,” said Tobias Henning, general manager premium of BILD, “we have to look into the younger generation as well. And you see we are present on Facebook. We are on Snapchat Discovery. And we do have Instagram stories. But so far, we have no real strategy to monetise those people [except with advertising]. We have to learn how to bring those people into paid content.”

Whereas much of the conference was consumed with the search for ways to convert readers of declining print products into money-generating subscribers of online and mobile offspring, Henning said BILDplus has taken a different approach.

“Some of you are trying to make print users digital users or these hybrid users,” Henning said. “We don’t do that because we see hardly any cross usage. Only 5%, maybe 10%, of print readers are also using digital. So we are not anymore focusing with paid content on the print user and trying to make the print user somehow digital. We used to do that. We had a super-ticket in the print paper, with which every print user can access our paid model as well. But nobody uses it. And we don’t sell a combined [print-digital] subscription anymore ... We are totally focusing on the digital channel when it comes to paid content.”

And in regard to that content, they have stumbled on some unexpected success areas, such as crime documentaries and video.

“In a nutshell, content is the most important to make BILDplus a success, and every kind of content does work if it is the best content, which only we can provide with the tonality which BILD has,” Henning said.

Tobias Henning, general manager premium of BILD, said monetising content for the younger generation is an important challenge for news media companies.
Tobias Henning, general manager premium of BILD, said monetising content for the younger generation is an important challenge for news media companies.

At the same time, he noted it is important for the newsroom to know what content is selling and what is not selling. “We have dashboards showing conversion rates and paid impressions behind the paywall. This is the easiest way for any editor to know what is working,” Henning explained.

Denník N shares editorial metrics too, but differently. An e-mail each morning tells the staff which stories had the most sales and which led to the largest number of subscriptions.

“I will never give reporters numbers on the pageviews because sometimes the relationship is almost the reverse where you have clickbait,” Bella said. “Any idiot can get a lot of clicks, right? You can easily cheat the system in the papers. Here, you can’t so easily cheat the readers because they only are going to pay for something that actually has a value.

Often journalists are surprised that editorial content outside of their core area of focus performs better.

“For example, we have a domestic-views opinion writer,” Bella said. His job is to write opinions. But whenever he writes about one of his hobbies, which is actually with airplanes and Second World War, his conversions, the number of sales on the articles, do very well. We’re not telling him to start writing about airplanes. But this is something he will see in the e-mail, and you can do whatever you want with the information.”

Denník N makes most of its income directly from reader support, and it uses a combination subscription and membership model. The news media company started with a subscription offer for €5 and membership for €9.

“We did one thing at the beginning that I still can’t believe we got the benefit,” he said with a chuckle. “We had the €9 membership from the beginning, but we didn’t have anything in it. So we just said, ‘Please, if you want to be a member of our club, pay €9 instead of €5. And what is in the club? Well, nothing now. But we promise you that we will think about this in the future and will actually bring something into it. But you can pay now, and in half a year we will actually give you something. We just don’t know what it is yet.’

“Surprisingly, a lot of people actually paid for the membership, mostly because the situation was emotional and they knew we were struggling for our lives. So they just paid extra. But now, finally, we actually put something in the package.”

Bella said their intention is to turn their experience with starting Denník N into “kind of an ecosystem for the smaller guys” by sharing the free and open-source publishing software they have developed, as well as ideas and best practices.

Meanwhile, BILDplus has set out to be an example of the contrary view to many industry leaders about how to successfully relate to paid subscriptions.

“The most important thing for us, of course, is to get subscribers,” Henning said. “A lot of other people would say, ‘Yeah, we don’t want to have just the subscriber, we also want to have the data.’ That’s sometimes a trade-off.”

Apple iTunes is infamous for not sharing subscriber data with content owners, including publishers, but “it’s one of our most important channels to sell our subscriptions,” Henning said. “We see an extremely high conversion rate. We applied that last year to Google as well. And we are seeing so far good success, I mean tremendous success. Subscriptions are going up by 20% to 30%. But nonetheless we have to see if, after maybe half year or so, if we are happy with that. Because we are not getting the data of the user. We don’t know the user.”