8 steps to becoming a digital subscription business

By Nathaniel Bane

Herald Sun

Melbourne, Australia


The constant upheaval in news media is taxing on all concerned. Seismic shifts in technology and audience expectations make it challenging to establish an operating rhythm across a publishers’ business.

For digital subscriptions publishers, this challenge is arguably felt sharpest on the frontline — by staff in the newsrooms developing and disseminating content. Constant change means goal posts change rapidly for professionals up and down a roster, from junior journalists to the editor, from digital producers to photographers. Just when a structure delivers results, we have to run down a different path.

The digital-focused newsroom has arrived, and everyone must adapt.
The digital-focused newsroom has arrived, and everyone must adapt.

A trait required by leaders driving newsroom cultural change — and recruiters now look for when building the newsroom of the future — is adaptability. People who thrive on change as much as telling a great story.

It took a decade for news publishers who survived the first wave of disruption to pivot from a news cycle dictated by the printing process to one serving audiences on multiple channels 24/7. Most news leaders would say that, while they’ve made great strides, they still haven’t gotten the structure right. They have yet to find their operating rhythm across print and digital.

It’s no longer enough to say digital operations are “now happening.” It’s no longer enough to say digital is an extension of the print content cycle. Digital subscription audiences are different and demand different things. Servicing this growing audience must keep maturing and at a quickening pace. And we don’t have a decade to pivot this time.

Publishers must reach a level of sophistication in content, content delivery, and overall digital experience — from one-touch sign-up to a fast app to an unobtrusive ad experience on mobile. The overall experience is as much a priority for successful digital subscription services like Netflix and Spotify as the content.

This applies more to digital news publishers because of the range of free content available to audiences. This is a crucial distinction — and one that sees the greatest chasm between publishers operating in a free Web environment and a subscription-based content environment.

These differences are now as stark as those between digital and print. Many publishers are still coming to grips with this change. This is why finding an operating rhythm is so crucial to success. And why everyone working at a subscription publisher today must self-skill and understand his or her role in driving this transition. It is their business to understand their business.

The entire business to be in lock step. It’s increasingly important that newsrooms, product, platform, marketing, and advertising teams are on the same page and moving toward the same goal, helping each other achieve sustainable growth. All staff working in these teams — not just those with a digital focus — have to intimately understand their products and audiences and work together to deliver not only cracking content, but an awesome digital experience. Digital subscribers today expect nothing less.

While the revenue is still in print, subscription digital audiences are growing. And because options for content are infinite, there’s an argument this requires a greater investment of our time and focus.

There’s hardly a newsroom that has been able to make this transition fully because of the demands of producing the printed format. But over a decade of digital transition at the Herald Sun in Melbourne (including through several subscription models with a subscription base closing in on six figures), we’ve learned there are a few steps that one part of that puzzle — newsrooms — need to follow to transition from a digital business to a digital subscriptions business.

  1. Share data and success widely. Make the process accessible, regular, and logical.
  2. Set clear and achievable goals.
  3. Prepare staff for change.
  4. Ensure journalists and section editors are invested in digital growth, however this works for your business.
  5. Put digital operations at the heart of your newsroom, not off to the side.
  6. Develop specialists in digital and print, and foster collaboration between them.
  7. Treat digital roles as importantly as print roles.
  8. Understand your audiences and what they want. It’s about the customer.

Another big challenge facing publishers — as if there aren’t enough — is transitioning from an acquisition focus to a joint acquisition and retention focus. Developing enough content and content pillars that keep subscribers engaged. Newsrooms need to build loyalty and develop rounds that foster repeat visits. It’s much more cost efficient for publishers to retain a customer than acquire one.

The digital revolution is now a digital evolution. Only those who can adapt to this change will thrive.

About Nathaniel Bane

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