COVID bump helps Boston Globe take giant leap in digital subscriptions

By Grzegorz Piechota

INMA

Oxford, United Kingdom

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The Boston Globe in the United States, as have many publishers around the world, enjoyed a significant COVID bump in subscriptions. Reportedly, it grew the digital subscriber base from about 145,000 just before the pandemic to nearly 205,000 in early May.

“It took us seven years to get our first 100,000 digital-only subscribers and about 11 months to get to 200,000, said editor Brian McGrory at a video conference with his peers in New England. 

The Globe’s editor added: “The rise has been substantial, gratifying, and important in terms of supporting our journalism. We're the only metro paper that could support the current size of its newsroom through revenue from digital subscribers.

The Globe did not unlock its COVID coverage for free, unlike other U.S. publishers, and offered a cheap trial subscription instead, similarly to many European publishers.

Last week, based on Piano data of 295 paywalled news sites in the United States and in Europe, the sales of digital subscriptions were still significantly higher than before the pandemic.

The goal of 200,000 was a long-sought one for The Globe, as internal modelling showed this number of customers would sustain the company even if it went digital-only. 

The model developed in 2017 by then Chief Revenue Officer Pete Doucette (now a consultant at FTI) considered a 2x multiple of the newsroom budget to estimate the digital subscription revenue required to achieve long-term sustainability. 

At the time, The Globe’s annual newsroom budget stood at US$35 million, and annual digital revenue from both ads and subscriptions was US$40 million, or 14% of total revenue. And 200,000 digital subscribers, if retained at a full price, would bring US$70 million a year in recurring revenue and ads.

The Globe has a shrinking, yet still significant, print business and no declared plans to shut it down anytime soon. Reportedly, the weekday print circulation is under 85,000 and Sunday print is about 147,000.

A unique feature of The Globe’s success is premium pricing. After a generous trial of US$1 for the first 26 weeks, or six months, it charges US$27.72 for every four weeks of digital subscription. 

It’s 3.5 times more than The New York Times charged for the basic news package in mid-May, and 11 times more than The Washington Post charged!

Of course, Boston is a unique market. It’s the fifth-wealthiest city in the United States by household income. The 10th best-educated city in the United States by proportion of adults with a college degree. It is home to Harvard and MIT, as well as lively tech and social sciences industries.

Unlike many other metropolitan dailies in the United States, since 2013 The Globe has enjoyed rare stability and focus in the hands a billionaire John Henry, a principal owner of famous sports clubs such as FC Liverpool and the Boston Red Sox.

Northeastern University’s Dan Kennedy explored the benefits of the committed ownership of wealthy individuals in his insightful 2018 book, The Return of the Moguls. A renaissance of The Globe was a prime example.

What the news subscription leaders — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Washington Post — have in common is a strategic focus and a runway of time and money. Is not it what news media need most to make a breakthrough in digital transformation?

Want to share a story of your bump? What have you learned about your readers, your brand, and yourself? E-mail me at: grzegorz.piechota@inma.org