3 ways to add value to a new subscription bundle, add new readers

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Hello! This is Readers First, a newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue innovation. I am INMA’s researcher-in-residence. E-mail me at: greg.piechota@inma.org.

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STRATEGY: How news brands rebuild the bundle to reach new readers

To become “the essential subscription,” The New York Times is expanding beyond its core readership. It builds, buys, and borrows products. Its digital growth repeats the history of its print bundle 50 years ago.

In the 2021 annual report, Chairman A.G. Sulzberger and CEO Meredith Kopit Levien wrote their aspiration was to become “the essential subscription for every English-speaking person.”

Audience research by The Times suggested there were at least 135 million adults worldwide who were paying, or were willing to pay, for one or many subscriptions to English-language news.

More than a 100 million readers have already registered accounts with The Times. More than 10 million subscribed to one of its products in print or digital.

And here comes a surprise:

  • If we exclude the print edition and The Athletic, a recently acquired sports vertical, we realise that 27% of the total 8 million digital-only subscriptions are for non-news products, such as Games, Cooking, or Wirecutter.

  • These products are increasingly driving the growth. In the last quarter of 2021, they brought 54% of new subscriptions.

How does The Times build up value to reach new readers?

Sourcing products to a bundle: There are three ways you can add value to ones’ bundle: 

  • You can build new products, as The Times built Games or Cooking. It published the first crossword in 1913, published daily crosswords in print since 1950 and online since 1996. The first paid app though was released in 2012. Cooking launched in 2014.

  • You can buy products for your bundle, as The Times bought The Athletic. The sports vertical with 1.2 million subscribers cost US$550 million in cash.

  • You can borrow products, as The Times did when it teamed up with Spotify in 2017. In a limited-time deal, it offered free access to Spotify’s premium service to new subscribers of its all-access plan.

These three ways of enriching a bundle come with trade-offs in creative control, speed, and risk. Different costs are associated.

When you build a new product from scratch, you have full creative control. But it takes years to scale up: It took Games nine years to achieve a milestone of 1 million subscribers, and seven years in the case of Cooking. 

Building is also risky. The Times launched Parenting in 2019 with an eye toward making it a stand-alone subscription product. It never did. 

Buying might be quicker and less risky than building, but you sacrifice some creative control and you need cash. Yet, with the acquisition of The Athletic, The Times added more than a million subscribers overnight and reached its goal of 10 million subscribers three years ahead of schedule.

Partnering, in theory, allows us to test the market quickly, with less risk, and at a fraction of the cost. Should we then expect more partnerships in the future?

History of a bundle: As a researcher, I am passionate about newspaper history. 

The way The Times has been building its digital bundle reminded me of the times of A.M. Rosenthal. This legendary editor directed coverage of The Times through the war in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, and the Watergate scandal. 

Together with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger as the publisher, Rosenthal modernised The Times in the 1970s, stopping the revenues from declining and growing circulation again. He launched a national edition to grow the readership beyond its New York base and expanded the contents beyond news to lifestyle, aiming at attracting casual readers.

In 1976, The Times launched a Weekend section, followed by Sports Monday, Science Times, Living, and Home. These innovations proved to be highly popular with readers and advertisers and were copied by many newspapers across the United States.

Since the launch of the Web site in 1996 and a new paywall in 2011, The Times has been redefining its business scope and has become subscription-first. It has enlarged its customer base beyond the U.S. And it expanded its product line beyond news and opinion.

As usual, the market success attracted imitation, and news brands across the nation and the world followed The Times by launching paywalls. Many are now building verticals. Not surprisingly, many also bet on puzzles.

Should you? If history is any guide, where best to expand?

Persistent user needs: When you get overwhelmed with all the new trends and changes to the world, it’s useful to stop and reflect on what is not changing. 

Since the 1940s, studies on gratifications from media use repeatedly find people read, watch, and listen to learn new things, connect with others, get recognition within the community, entertain themselves, and escape from negative feelings.

What if the media user needs don’t really change, as human psychology doesn’t change that much either? Could the historical demand and preferences offer guidance about today’s consumers? If so, what would this advice be?

In a 1989 book Press and Public, American sociologist Leo Bogart summarised the newspaper industry’s knowledge of the readership in 376 pages. With the precision of 18th century explorers such as Alexander von Humboldt, he drew a detailed picture of who reads what, when, where, and why in American newspapers.

In one fascinating table, as Bogart drew with data and not a pencil, he listed a ranking of content that Americans most liked to read in their newspapers based on a study from 1987. Not only remembered and read and highly rated — but actually liked.

Local news led the pack (30% readers liked it most), followed by national and world news (25%), sports news (23%), comics (17%), advice columns (16%), supermarket ads and coupons (12%). 

What about cooking? There was food in the ranking and 9% of readers liked it most. Anything about games? Yes, crosswords: 5%.

My takeaways: If history is any guide, then apart from sports news and retail advice, the biggest opportunities might reside for The Times and other U.S. news publishers in redefining local news, content for children (such as cartoons), and general advice.

This insight might be worth testing in other regions, too. We see publishers around the world expanding into some of the above “most liked” areas of service with success. 

For example, Poland’s leading national brand Gazeta Wyborcza launched six new local editions in 2021, growing its unique national and local news bundle. These new editions are digital-only and subscriber-first products, and are said to drive sales. At the end of 2021, Wyborcza had 280,000 digital subscribers.

Argentina’s La Nacion redefined supermarket coupons as a membership club, and offered discounts and perks at 3,000 points of sales nationwide. You don’t need to cut coupons from the newspaper anymore — you swipe a plastic card. And 60% of new subscription sales are attributed to Club La Nacion, which ended 2021 with 300,000 digital subscribers.

Want to learn more about bundling? Don’t miss the subscription module of the INMA World News Media Congress on May 12. Check the agenda and register here.

What’s in your bundle? I am looking for case studies for the upcoming INMA master classes. Reach me at greg.piechota@inma.org.

BUSINESS MODEL: Strengths and weaknesses of media subscriptions

As consumers became the primary customers of news media worldwide, we know more about the strengths and opportunities of media subscriptions. What are the weaknesses? Any threats?

According to World Press Trends’ estimates, in 2021 consumers brought US$53 billion, or 54%, of total revenue of news media publishers worldwide. Advertisers brought US$44 billion, or 46%. Advertisers used to be the primary customers of this industry for decades, but it all changed in the mid-2010s.

Let’s take a step back and look at the whole Internet and media industry: Web sites and apps, newspapers, magazines, books, TV, cinema, radio, music, and games. Activate Consulting valued this market in 2021 at US$2.1 trillion and broke down three key sources of revenue:

  • Advertising: 33%

  • Paid content: 33%

  • Internet access: 35%

This means consumers actually fund most of the Internet and media sector, as they pay for content and for their access.

Activate also estimated that 79% of revenue from paid content globally came in the form of subscriptions and 21% in the form of single transactions — suggesting both consumers and firms prefer subscriptions.

Why? What are the pros and cons of media subscriptions?

S.W.O.T. Analysis: There are good reasons for subscriptions attracting the attention of media executives, and here is my argument.

There are some obvious strengths:

  • Proven model: This revenue model is tested, scalable, and transformative. As the consumer has become a primary customer of the industry globally, many leading companies report their revenue split reversed, too.

  • Long-term focus: Subscriptions offer a reliable and predictable revenue that is good fit for journalism as it allows investment in staff, product, and helps keep newsrooms independent from governments or corporations.

  • Convenience and good value: Readers accept the recurring payments as they simplify their life and result in lower prices per unit (e.g., a day of access, or an article).

Subscriptions offer also market opportunities:

  • Effective channel: The Internet allows publishers to cheaply reach new markets, e.g., geographical, and we see news firms expanding nationally and internationally.

  • Consumer insights: Direct relationships with readers allow data capture and unlock insights about consumers and their behaviours. Knowing them better, publishers can innovate to serve them better, too.

  • Golden age: Demographics are favourable for long-term relationships as more people are educated, live longer, and remain active, e.g., professionally for longer, too.

What are the weaknesses?

  • News makes and breaks: Demand for news and for subscriptions is driven by the news cycle. In down times, publishers should spend on promotion like other consumer brands, but they rarely do. After decades of digital transformation, budgets are tight. 

  • Sleeping beauties: Many subscribers don’t read the product regularly and therefore are at risk of churning. Publishers struggle to engage casual readers before and after the purchase.

  • Spillover of expectations: Having enjoyed global media and technology platforms, consumers expect the same level of user experience from news products. Publishers though lack resources and know how of the tech giants. 

There are some threats looming:

  • News avoidance: Amid political and societal crises, many citizens get anxious, feel helpless, and actively avoid the news — even in the West where news media have the best conditions to thrive.

  • Cost of attention: With new forms of media and entertainment emerging, the competition for people’s attention is rising, pushing the cost of acquiring and maintaining attention up. 

  • The rise of blockchain: New digital property ownership models may slow down the shift from ownership to usage in commerce and disrupt subscriptions for access to digital content. 

What is your analysis? What pros and cons would you add to this list? E-mail me at greg.piechota@inma.org.

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Greg Piechota, researcher-In-residence at INMA. Greg leads the Readers First Initiative at INMA aimed at sharing the best practices in growing online engagement and reader revenue. 

E-mail him at greg.piechota@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to the Readers First Slack channel for daily links.

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