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In a time of crisis, research shows readers will pay for news

By Ernst Poulsen

Copenhagen, Denmark


The median news brand has experienced a 130% increase in the number of digital subscribers between 2019 and 2022, according to INMA’s Subscription Benchmarking Service

“In a time of crisis — especially a pandemic — people turn to trusted sources and are more willing than ever to pay for news,” INMA Readers First Initiative Lead Greg Piechota explained to the audience at the INMA Media Innovation Week in Copenhagen last week.

In his work as researcher-in-residence at INMA, Piechota constantly has focus on what works for the news media industry – and especially what doesn’t.

Spike in cancellations

One might think that if bad news was a recipe for attracting readers and selling subscriptions, then the present situation with war in Ukraine, an huge energy-crisis, and hyperinflation would attract even more readers. But this is not the case.

“News avoidance is a real thing,” Piechota shared with the 300+ attendees.

A recent survey among 93.000 readers in 46 countries showed that 38% avoid news on certain topics — especially politics and Covid19. Readers simply found the news depressing and repetitive.

But even more important consumer pessimism has doubled since the pandemic, two-thirds of consumers are specifically worried about inflation, and three-quarters are changing their shopping behavior by buying less or delaying purchases.

“We’re still selling news subscriptions to heavy users, but this pessimism has the potential to slow growth in the newspaper market according,” Piechota said.

This pessimism has had a direct impact. Across a number of statistics, there has been significant decline:

INMA statistics show there has been a 14% decline in online sessions across 125 brands, and the proportion of heavy users shrank from 4.5% to 3.1% from 2021 to 2022.

And although there has been a steady increase in digital-only subscriptions for several years, there is one counter trend that is worrying, Piechota said: There has been a rapid growth in cancellations — not only in real numbers. During the last four quarters, the median change in monthly digital-only subscriptions stops has gone up by 34%.

Subscribers are more important than ads

Still, over the past decade, there has been a slow but steady increase in the revenue percentage coming from subscribers. Today, consumers account for 54% of all revenue, compared to 46% coming from advertisers.

But this there may be some change in the years ahead, Piechota said:

“Data is becoming the driving force. And as media houses are building platforms across brands, they may also build better ad-products and generate more income from that side of the business.”

The cookie apocalypse

As data and tracking becomes ever more valuable and important, there’s also a counter movement. A long list of tracking scandals has changed the public opinion in favour of a higher level of privacy protection.

Not only can readers in the EU block tracking to a certain level, Apple has decided to require user acceptance of cookies in their Safari browser. And Google announced it will will ban tracking-cookies in its Chrome browser starting in 2023.

Mark Challinor, lead of the INMA Advertising Initiative, warned the media industry about imminent and profound change.

“Not only will the cookie crumble. We’re heading for a cookie apocalypse,” he said.

Overall, however, Challinor is not pessimistic as long as the industry keeps a strong focus on data and new creative ways of improving their products.

“The media industry is in a strong position: 77% of Web sites use tracking cookies, he said. But publishers who know their audiences can use their first-party data lakes as way to gain knowledge about their readers.”

You can find more coverage from Media Inovation Week is sponsored by ArcXPFT StrategiesGoogle News InitiativeMeta, and Piano — here. Others sponsors include AptitudeChartbeatflowplayersmartoctoStibo DXUnited Robots, and Zephr.

About Ernst Poulsen

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