News Regional Media finds digital subscription gold in the outback

By Bryce Johns

News Corp

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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It should have been mission impossible — selling digital subscriptions when your mastheads have no paywall. 

Without proof the journalism from News Regional Media’s smallest and most remote titles was worth paying for, they couldn’t justify paywall investment. Many of the publications are one-person operations with several in the outback more than 10 hours from a big city.

So, we set out to sell the stories from 30 journalists in 17 small towns on the Web sites of our nearest big city dailies. The results were astounding. Hundreds of subscriptions were sold, and it forced us to open paywalls in the 17 towns. Again, the results blew all expectations.

News Regional Media took a gamble by sending regional journalists like Ali Kuchel to cover stories in the Australian outback — and charging for the content.
News Regional Media took a gamble by sending regional journalists like Ali Kuchel to cover stories in the Australian outback — and charging for the content.

News Regional Media has been a digital subscriptions juggernaut for News Australia. Its 18 paywalls over daily titles have had the fastest percentage growth in the News’ Australian division for the past two+ years.

But it was a different story in non-daily and community newspaper land. There are dozens of titles, many one-person operations, in places so remote they were literally in the outback. 

As the advertising revenue squeeze went on titles with no cover price, several closed. More were precarious.

Digital subscriptions offered a lifeline, but would enough people in these places pay? And how on earth could the tech, editorial, and marketing investment be justified in towns of barely 1,000? Building and running 17 new paywalls would be a major drain.

We needed to prove that people would pay for the journalism while also solving a tech problem and convincing journalists that a digital future was their salvation.

Starting small, thinking big

It started with five small community titles in an area west of Brisbane called the Surat Basin — tiny towns in the outback, hundreds of kilometres from any city centre.

We used the paywalled Web sites of the nearest daily titles as hosts for Surat’s premium locked stories.

The first story was written by a cadet journalist in Dalby. It was a moving story about a woman who read her own eulogy in a pre-prepared video. It sold four subscriptions by its second day. 

Soon, stories written in these small outback communities were selling subscriptions around the state. The trial was then widened to 17 mastheads. Within 20 weeks, another 1,000 subs were sold.

In the meantime, the tech team was finding a solution to the work needed on multiple Web sites: one wall with 17 different shopfronts, reducing the tech/product, editorial, and marketing requirements significantly. As a reader logged in, the shopfront changed dynamically to their local title — the Noosa News, the Central Telegraph, The Ballina Shire Advocate, and so on.

Convinced on how worthwhile the non-daily copy was, the tick was given to the tech solution — one wall, 17 shopfronts. 

Rapid results

In six weeks, another 1,200 new active digital subscribers were added to NRM’s subscriber base of 110,000. It grew to 6,000 inside a year.

For the reader, not only did it mean having to pay for the best local journalism, but for the first time they got access to the best premium stories written by News’ top writers in the state and across the country. 

With no ability to charge on the free Web sites previously, the best copy had been withheld. Significantly, News’ non-local premium articles are responsible for about 25% of subscriptions. 

But the real success here is in the local newsrooms. On some days since launch, the best subbing story in the state of Queensland has come from the non-daily journos ... ahead of journalists working in cities of 200,000 to 2 million.

What’s more, some of the ideas from these young journalists have been replicated across the country. As it turns out, the best journalism can come from the bush.

About Bryce Johns

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