There is no subscriptions ceiling

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, USA


In front of 280 delegates from news media companies around the world — gathered to absorb and share what they know about digital subscriptions — INMA Media Subscriptions Summit curator Greg Piechota dropped the lead to the story, challenging the chatter and fear around subscriptions with this show-stopping declaration:

“There is no f-----g ceiling.”

As lead of the INMA Readers First Initiative and the association’s researcher-in-residence, Piechota shared original research from 234 news brands from throughout the world through the INMA Subscription Benchmarking Service. The research proves there is no subscription ceiling. 

So, he suggested, stop worrying about that and get to the business of building reader revenue.

“We don’t know what AI is going to do to us. We don’t know what’s going to happen. But let’s take a look at what we do know.”

These were some of the lessons accentuated throughout the week of study tours, summit presentations, and workshops:

  • News brands must differentiate.

  • Quality journalism is vital.

  • Differentiated news products are important.

  • News publishers must invest in online distribution and partnerships.

  • Internal and external collaborations should be prioritised.

  • New tech should be embraced to help news publishers manage this journey.

“You have vendors, tech ready to plug-and-play,” Piechota said. “You have conviction that what we do is important because when it was about life and death, journalism mattered. We know this. So make journalism f-----g sustainable because we need it.”

AI is forever changing search

All that said, there certainly are concerns to be respected.

Just a few weeks before the summit, a startup called Arc Search opened its virtual doors, one of many search engines launched in the past year to use generativeAI in new ways that are forever changing how search is used.

“This is happening right now,” Piechota said. “What we’ve seen since last year is an AI content tsunami.”

He shared a slide showing an example from the Financial Times of a regular search and an AI search:

“You see a story from FT and another Web site that looks very similar, but you can see in the text that it was just ripped from the FT,” Piechota said. 

The tech that pulled the story even made an error: pulling the language that explained the material was copyrighted by the Financial Times. More than 700 such sites are out there right now, often funded by Big Tech advertising, impersonating well-known news publishers, he said.

“This changes the Web. It’s flooding the market with low-quality content and can lead to a decrease of overall quality of the open Web, misinformation.”

This doesn’t help the fact, per the Reuters Institute, that 36% of news consumers say they avoid the news oftentimes or sometimes. Such information overload does not spook Piechota, who said the same thing happened when there were too many newspapers in the 1920s (so Time magazine created a product to give readers the news in 20 minutes) and too many friends on Facebook (so people moved to WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger).

Actually, AI likely can decrease information overload, allowing news media companies the opportunity of disruption.

The risk to and opportunities for news publishers

“What really matters for us is what Google does because Google is 90% of search across the world,” Piechota said. 

Research by Gartner predicts traditional search volume will drop by 25% by 2026.

Piechota’s research shows one-third of news publishers are at risk because of AI search: “Our industry has become much more dependent on Google. Google referrals are stable, while Facebook referrals are minus 48%.” 

There are two ways forward with the news business model, according to Piechota: reassembling or rethinking. The latter, he said, is more sustainable yet most news publishers will start with the first.

How do media companies reassemble their business models? By doing the job of the Big Tech platforms, Piechota said: personalise, be more convenient, more interactive, bundle like social media.

The New York Times, for example, “does what it takes to become a destination,” he said, spending half a billion U.S. dollars annually delivering its journalism to readers and getting paid for it. “Are you spending 25% on that?” he asked. 

About Dawn McMullan

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