Mail Online pivots to subscriptions to change revenue model

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


The slump in digital ad revenue prompted major news brands, such as Mail Online, to double down on subscriptions as a revenue stream.

In January, Mail Online launched a freemium paywall targeting its U.K. readers. The Mail runs one of the largest newspaper Web sites in the world, with nearly 200 million monthly users and 400 million monthly visits.

When I visited the Mail’s London newsroom last September, its editor and publisher Danny Groom said he saw the high share of direct visitors (48% per Similarweb) as a sign of their brand preference and loyalty, and this posed an opportunity for a successful subscription.

In the past decade, this U.K.-based mid-market tabloid focused on digital advertising as it expanded internationally and conquered the U.S. market. Last year though, its owner DMGT saw its digital advertising revenue falling 3% year-on-year, per its annual accounts.

Similarly to other Western markets, the U.K. news industry is losing ground in digital advertising. 

  • But publishers did not see their revenue grow — national U.K. news brands lost nearly 4%, and regional brands lost more than 5%.

History repeats in … pivots

The past economic downturns and ad revenue plunges also saw a rise in subscription models. For example, The New York Times launched its now wildly successful paywall in the aftermath of the 2009 recession.

While a few smaller or niche brands like Quartz, TechCrunch, or Time have abandoned paywalls in the past year due to individual circumstances, claims of a great subscription reversal are unsubstantiated. 

Data and industry research suggest the news industry is already making most of the money from readers, betting its future on it, and is doubling down:

  • According to PwC and WAN-IFRA, newspapers globally made US$34 billion from advertising last year but US$49 billion from circulation (both print and digital). 

  • While print revenue streams are declining, publishers expect their digital consumer revenues to grow two to five times faster than digital ads over the next three years, depending on the world’s region, per FT Strategies, Google, and an INMA survey.

  • Across 33 major markets, the proportion of top online news outlets charging for content has increased substantially, from 26% in 2018 to 41% in 2022, according to my study for INMA.
  • In the most recent survey by Oxford’s Reuters Institute, a higher proportion of news executives said subscriptions were important (a rise from 74% in 2020 to 80% in 2024) than advertising (a decline from 81% in 2020 to 72% in 2024).

Untapped market potential

Per INMA Benchmarks, by the end of last year, a median national news brand sold digital-only subscriptions to only 0.9% of households in their market (a median regional brand penetrated 2%).

The national champions often fared better — a success they attributed to investments in journalism, destination branding, and continually improving the user experience: 

  • Relative to population, these figures are far higher than the market penetration rate achieved even by The New York Times: With 9.7 million digital-only subscribers, the world’s largest news subscription brand penetrated only 0.8% U.S. households.

No wonder The Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger believes the news business is thinking too small. 

  • At its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, print newspaper circulation in the U.S. alone topped 63 million. 

  • Add Sunday newspapers, magazines, and you can estimate the historical demand at 150 million to 200 million. 

  • Per Sulzberger, all digital news subscriptions in the U.S. today add up to just 30 million to 40 million — fewer than the number of subscribers to the video streaming service Paramount+ (63 million).

"I don’t think that our industry can or should accept that we are going to collectively be smaller than an eighth-grade streamer," The Times publisher told Oxford’s Reuters Institute. 

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

About Greg Piechota

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