Amid economic uncertainties, news media see reader revenue growing again in 2023

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Digital subscription business has not reached a peak, as some feared, but rather just paused for a quarter, new data from INMA members reveal. 

The digital subscription growth index for the last four years is mostly a straight line upwards, apart from a blip in the last quarter of 2022. 

In 1Q 2023, a median news brand saw digital subscription volume and revenue up 3.8% and 3.7% respectively versus previous quarter, and 13.6% and 16.1% respectively against the same quarter last year.

This is based on INMA Benchmarks, an ongoing study of performance of 175 news brands globally. Median reflects the halfway point in the sample, or “normal performance.”

INMA revealed the results of this and other original studies at the recent World Congress of News Media in New York.

Demand for news: Publishers’ performance seems to contradict anecdotal evidence of so-called subscription fatigue. The impact on news subscriptions sold by INMA members seems to be insignificant.

Actually, the sales in 1Q 2023 was only slightly lower than at the COVID pandemic peak in 2Q 2020, suggesting publishers learned how to sell subscriptions despite declining engagement with news sites. They squeeze the same juice from a drier lemon.

News Web sites’ reach and penetration, sessions, and pageviews have declined in recent years, as the news cycle cooled down, but it’s not an attention recession. 

Instead, we’re seeing a return to pre-pandemic engagement levels, indicating a fresh kind of normalcy. Online sessions, a measure of frequency, are still a bit or 4% higher than in 2019.

Consumer surveys may suggest a 18% spike in news avoidance globally, between 2019 and 2022, but actual engagement stats for INMA members disagree. 

Subscription market dynamics: Another INMA study found an impressive 25% uptick since 2018 in the proportion of top sites charging for online news. Some 41% of 473 top news sites in 33 major global markets had paywalls or membership programmes in 2022. 

As the digital subscriber base grew, so did the number of cancellations. The monthly churn rates, hovering between 3% and 4%, are eating into growth.

Publishers’ churn rates are still lower than observed in other sectors — the video streamers’ average churn rate of 6%, for example. News media are likely still acquiring heavy readers rather than the casual ones.

Rising sales and revenues, early adopter conversions, and increased competition are all textbook characteristics of a product category at the growth stage rather than the mature one.

Dominant strategies: On a growing market, textbooks recommend maximising share — adding features to attract new segments, pricing for penetration, intensifying distribution beyond the owned channels, promoting the brand and trial.

The world’s top-50 news brands by the size of the digital subscription base are clearly fighting for market share, an INMA annual survey showed. 

  • They are enriching their bundles, adding features and content to main products (96% top brands do it), and largely selling these as one package (79%). 

  • Additionally, there’s a growing trend of offering trials, which are becoming increasingly longer, typically more than three months. The proportion of the top brands with trials increased by 26% in the past year, to 86%. 

  • While maintaining low entry prices, publishers are increasing end prices — 53% increased the post-trial prices in the past year, and the average increase was 59%.


New tactics: To ease conversions and retention, publishers are progressively personalising prices. In the U.S., an estimated 80% of circulation is sold based on personalised prices, with Europe lagging behind at below 50%, per Mather Economics.

Another significant trend is the addition of non-news products to news bundles. This tactic, according to publishers’ financial reports, is helping boost the number of digital subscriptions and revenue per subscriber. 

The latest development in bundling includes large, cable-style bundles operated by groups publishing multiple titles. Although they are primarily being used as a revenue retention strategy at present, they also offer the opportunity for customer acquisition beyond core channels.

Interested in comparing your performance to the peers? Join 175 brands from 34 countries that benchmark with INMA.

Greg’s Readers First newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. Subscribe here. 

About Greg Piechota

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