Digital subscriptions are the white-hot subject at news media companies today because they come closest to a tangible business model that replaces print advertising revenue while preserving newsroom scale. 

Yet there are far deeper reasons, too. 

In my “News Media Outlook 2018: The New Economics of Content,” released this week by INMA, I tell of my very personal journey intersecting with INMA members as they dive deeper into digital subscriptions. 

This week, INMA released its “News Media Outlook 2018: The New Economics of Content,” a deep dive into digital subscriptions, strategy, and global trends.
This week, INMA released its “News Media Outlook 2018: The New Economics of Content,” a deep dive into digital subscriptions, strategy, and global trends.

Last June, I began my usual visits to member companies. My travels just happened to take me to places like Toronto, New York, Washington, San Francisco, New Delhi, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Lima, Stockholm, Oslo, Zurich, and Warsaw, among others. There was no agenda other than learning and sharing. 

Yet what was unexpectedly imposed on me was dozens of companies going down a similar path — without the benefit of having talked with each other. I ended up gathering knowledge stop by stop and connecting the dots.

In the Outlook report, I detail the spark to my journey: an accidental conversation with some smart people at Canada’s Globe and Mail about an internal content scoring system that seemed to have shifted the focus and culture of their newsroom to an obsession on the economics of content.

Yet digital subscriptions seemed to represent the tip of a deeper iceberg: 

  • How do we measure the value of our content? Every company playing in this space has a different answer and system. The answer often drills down to corporate DNA.
  • How do we get buy-in from recalcitrant newsrooms? Fact is, almost every newsroom with whom I interacted was enthusiastic about understanding the value of their work — and how central they now were to success or failure. 
  • As social platform algorithms wiggle here and there, how do we engage with digital subscribers to preserve the subscriber relationship and get eyeballs on the stuff we’re producing? The dumb old newsletter emerged as the answer at every turn. There was a deep art in what newsletters got produced, how they got produced, and what success looked like.

While paid content schemes were started, stopped, started, and stopped multiple times in the past decade, there is an emerging realisation that maybe that first effort wasn’t so bad after all. With an expectation of, say, 100,000 digital subscribers, getting only 10,000 after a year of effort feels like defeat. In fact, there is a limited market to take print content and replicate it in digital format. But that can’t be the end game — and thinking that was “it” was the mistake. 

There is an emerging subscription stack at media companies. A ham-handed print-to-digital product surrounded by a clunky paywall can be a first step. Best practices can be layered on, ranging from digital optimisation to sign-up and onboard processes.

Picking the correct model for you — meter, freemium, hybrid, tall wall, short wall, porous wall — is a process unto itself. Going after niche audiences or creating niche products is part of the stack. The top of the stack appears to be a broader membership play — into which digital subscriptions are a part.

In all of this is a kind of an innocent street smarts emerging among audience executives, editors, and the like. Data is suddenly and cruelly telling us precisely what people think of us. Are they reading us? Are they buying us? If 90% of traffic is driven by 10% of our content, how do we prioritise more of the 10%? How much stuff have we been producing that just doesn’t matter to readers? 

What was fascinating as I traveled among radically different news brands in the South Pacific to Latin America to Europe to South Asia to North America is the answer about what triggers subscriptions was different region to region, country to country, and brand to brand.

The community newspapers of Norway were mostly wasting their time covering politics; a better bet might have been streaming second-tier football matches — at least if success is defined as what builds and retains a subscribing audience. The answers were totally different at their Norwegian counterparts in Oslo.

Sometimes I can get jaded and say that most media companies are the same. But they’re not. The brand personality is different. The history is different. The mix of employees is different. Leadership is different. Board expectations are different. The consuming public is different. The influence of advertisers is different. Government influence and interference are different. Even how success gets defined is radically different .

It is what makes the news media industry so fascinating, so fun, and so difficult to generalise.

Yet what I can generalise is that digital subscriptions represent the biggest cultural boost to legacy news media since the print broadsheet-to-tabloid revolution of 2003-2004. INMA went back to those newspapers that made the shift to tabloid and asked their executives if the shift changed circulation trends. In fact, the downward trends returned. Yet the CEOs (especially) said that culturally rallying the entire company around changing format was a management opportunity of a generation. They wouldn’t have traded that for the world.

I believe in 2018 we are in another management opportunity. A cultural boost is always good, yet I am hopeful that we can figure out the economics of content, get good at this game, and find that sustainable business model that has long eluded us in the Digital Age. 

If you can’t tell, I am hugely optimistic about news media. And I look forward to talking more with you about my findings in the months ahead: personal visits with INMA members in the next month, two Webinars with members (strategy and trends as well as digital subscriptions), a Media Subscriptions Summit in London, and the World Congress of News Media in Washington, D.C.

It’s a whole new world for news media. Understanding the economics of content and helping the industry get better and better at it by surfacing best practices is INMA’s focus in 2018.