Readers who pay for news are incredibly important to publishers, and publishers must expend great energy and foresight to make them feel incredibly special.

These are people who value original content and are willing to support grassroots journalism. They don’t need to pay for news. But they decide to because they see value in how it enhances their lives — and place a value on the role of journalism in a properly functioning society.

Loyal subscribers still support grassroots journalism, and their needs and desires should play a central role in creating a digital strategy.
Loyal subscribers still support grassroots journalism, and their needs and desires should play a central role in creating a digital strategy.

The value of this decision — to make a financial commitment to content from a news publisher — can’t be overstated.

Publishers like us at the Herald Sun are building a foundation for the future of journalism on a strong base of loyal subscribers. And like anything we pay for, readers expect a level of service above and beyond the norm.

In a news context, this means exclusivity, quality, experience, and convenience. People pay for TV they could get for free for similar reasons. TV providers have worked out what they need to do to build and satisfy a large base of paying users. The same rules apply to more traditional newspaper publishers in the digital era.

When producing subscription news, publishers must adjust their entire approach to the content distribution and continue to delight subscribers.

A colleague in London, Times digital editor Alan Hunter — one of the world’s leading digital news executives — summed it up when he spoke to PressGazette. Keeping subscribers happy was at the core of what the revered masthead did, Hunter said.

“You need to really serve your customers digitally; they’re not just casual buyers, they are subscribers.

“That is a big responsibility for us as the Times and the Sunday Times — to make sure our relationship with them at every point in their time with us is befitting of the standard we set in our journalism.”

He added: “Our real focus is in pleasing our subscribers. That’s all we want to do. We also want to please advertisers. But if we keep our subscribers happy, then that’s the core of what we do.

“So we’re looking at how often people return to the Web site and the smartphone app, and how much they’re reading when they get here.”

It’s a constant conflict for news organisations: meeting the challenge of advertising versus subscriptions. Subscribers want a different ad experience. Finding a happy balance is crucial to success.

At the Herald Sun, we are focusing on understanding our subscribers better and giving them more of what they want. We monitor what stories and topics prove most popular with our subscribers and reflect our newsroom cycles, publishing the right content at the right times.

We conducted a major on-site survey with subscribers to better understand their content needs and reflect that throughout the newsroom.

Our rewards programme is being overhauled, and our product teams are heavily focused on making sign up and sign in simpler, creating a cleaner ad experience, and delivering greater value to readers at the article level. Changes are being made, right down to our call centre hours being extended to help subscribers through any issues they face.

But it’s just the start of a very long and challenging journey in creating a successful digital subscription business that is sustainable for many years ahead.

Publishers would do well to listen to their digital subscribers and put them at the heart of everything they do. They are incredibly important to the future of journalism.