Here are 7 reasons news subscriptions aren’t growing faster

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Today, I am unpacking the key reasons for slower than expected growth in digital subscriptions and offering advice about how to audit your funnel.

If you have questions or suggestions, e-mail me at, or meet me at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in just three weeks in New York.

7 reasons for stagnation in digital news subscriptions

Apart from the low news cycle, the slow subscriber growth likely stems from not addressing core reader needs, lack of habitual use, low visibility of offers, value perception issues, sign-up friction, subscriber churn, and lack of impact on readers’ lives.

This is based on the INMA analysis of publishers’ proprietary data, surveys, and industry research. 

Despite steady growth in digital subscriptions since 2019, news outlets have found volume and revenue slowed down in 2023 to a median of 10%, based on INMA Benchmarks.

Historical data showed the demand for subscriptions followed the demand for news, and this was the highest during big events, such as the pandemic, elections, or war outbreaks. 

The year of 2024, with its elections affecting billions, Olympics, and other big sports events, potentially poses an opportunity for the brands that enjoy a healthy subscription funnel. 

(Reality check: At a recent INMA meet-up, 52% attendees said they prioritised subscription volume growth this year or were equally focused on volume and revenue growth, while 48% said their sole priority was subscription revenue growth.)

 How to audit your funnel? 

Behavioural studies inspired funnels, journeys, ladders, chains, or loops as visual metaphors for the decision-making process of a customer: from the initial need through each step a customer makes, from initial awareness to purchase, and to the final benefit. 

Back in 2018, I visited the newsroom of NRC in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Xavier van Leeuwe, then director of the consumer business, showed me journeys of readers meticulously mapped on a wall of his conference room. Yellow Post-it notes stood for touchpoints. Pink notes called for fixes.

By examining the readers’ steps in detail, we can pinpoint specific moments of friction that may deter or dissuade readers from continuing their path to a satisfied subscriber. Our job as news marketeers is to remove these obstacles.

What are the top seven reasons for stagnation in digital subscriptions?

1. Ignorance of reader needs

Issue: A disconnect may exist between news providers and their audience, with many organisations failing to actively understand reader preferences and needs.

Insights: According to a 2020 poll by INMA, 38% of news managers prioritised product decisions based on their gut feeling over research or data; 15% admitted doing what the boss told them to do. 

One risk is that we assume our audience is primarily seeking information on news sites, while decades of academic studies show the psychological motivations are broader and include the need to belong, to connect, to feel pleasure, or to escape one’s problems.

Another risk is that we view readers as one whole and therefore assume that everyone needs the same. In a 2021 poll by INMA, only 26% news managers said they segmented readers by behaviours.

2. Limited regular reader base

Issue: The pool of regular, engaged readers is too small, with most visitors being casual browsers rather than potential subscribers.

Insights: A startling 71% of global news Web site users visited only once a month in third quarter 2023, per INMA Benchmarks, highlighting the challenge of converting one-time visitors into regular readers. 

A median site saw only 4% of users visiting at least 10 times a month. Numerous studies found that visiting tenure, frequency, regularity, and time spent are the key predictors for propensity to subscribe, along direct visits implying preference for the brand. 

Per Chartbeat data, only 24% of all inbound pageviews on news sites were generated during sessions referred from direct visits. 

3. Low offer visibility

Issue: Subscription offers and paywalls fail to reach the majority of site visitors, severely limiting the opportunity for conversion.

Insights: In an average month, based on INMA Benchmarks, only 23% of users encounter subscription offers, with a conversion rate to paid subscribers at a meager 0.003% of all users, showcasing the need for strategies that increase the visibility of subscription offers.

The upper quartile, or the best performing 25% of news brands, show offers to 48% of users and achieve an effective conversion rate of 0.01% users.

As many publishers balance different revenue sources, they are reluctant to lock more content and stop more people with paywalls. INMA testing in 2023 showed only a few of the top 50 brands experimented with offers shown along with free content.

 4. Perceived lack of value

Issue: Potential subscribers do not perceive enough unique value in the content or user experience to warrant a subscription.

Insights: Per INMA Benchmarks, only 2% of users stopped by a paywall in third quarter 2023 started a check-out or clicked to learn more on a median site. This suggests the offers were not necessarily showcasing the right benefits or the right price. 

Among the top 40 news brands, in a 2023 INMA study, the promotion of journalism’s value (33%) lagged behind convenience features (88%), such as a mobile app or a newsletter, suggesting a missed opportunity.

A 2023 study by German and U.K. researchers found the most effective pitch involved informing audiences that their subscription would support independent, inclusive, and watchdog journalism, and that a subscription model was implemented due to the news industry’s critical financial situation. 

5. Checkout frictions

Issue: A cumbersome subscription process deters readers from completing their purchase.

Insights: The median checkout flow efficiency rate for news sites stands at 18%, per INMA Benchmarks, compared to 30% for e-commerce sites, per Baymard Institute. 

A 2019 U.S. study of metropolitan news sites found the main culprit could be a requirement to create a Web site account in the beginning of the checkout rather than after paying; 85% of users dropped from the check-out when asked for a password.

Payment failures pose a challenge too: 35% of e-commerce transactions fail due to a payment decline, for example, insufficient funds, missing authentication, or suspicion of fraud, per ChargeBee. Luckily, 32% of declined payments are recovered.

6. High churn rates

Issue: Retaining subscribers is a challenge, particularly within the first few months of subscription.

Insights: According to INMA Benchmarks, an average monthly churn rate for a median news brand is 3.6%, and that means on average, 67% new subscribers stay for a year and 28% stay for three years.

The bottom quartile, or the churn rate for the 25% worst performers, is 7.6%. This translates into 42% new subscribers surviving a year and only 6% making it three years.

Let’s compare two brands, each converting 100 subscribers every month — one observing 3.6% monthly churn rate and the other, 7.6%. The impact on subscriber growth is dramatic, with higher churn rates flattening the growth and halving the potential subscriber base over time. 

Engagement with the product is key, as a 2021 Northwestern University study found that regular readers churned less. A 2022 Piano study showed that early onboarding is crucial, as half of churners left in the first three months since subscribing.

7. Lack of impact on readers’ lives

Issue: News organisations struggle to measure and demonstrate the value and the real-life impact of their journalism on subscribers.

Insights: A 2021 INMA poll found most publishers measured only usage of their products and transactions, with only 5% surveying, for example, perception or satisfaction.

An independent 2022 study of 14 major U.S. news sites found their average Net Promoter Score was -15 on a scale from -100 to +100. This shows the news sites have more detractors than promoters and signals low satisfaction and low willingness to advocate for the brands.

With 66% of news consumers globally saying they avoid the news at least sometimes, per Oxford’s Reuters Institute, there’s a clear need for strategies that show readers the tangible benefits of journalism and subscription.

Want to audit your funnel and benchmark with 180 news brands globally? Join INMA Benchmarks and meet the peers at the first in-person benchmarking meet-up alongside the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York, February 28-March 1.

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz “Greg” Piechota, INMA’s researcher-in-residence and lead for the Readers First Initiative. In his newsletters, Greg shares original research, analysis, and best practices in growing reader revenue.

E-mail Greg at, message him on Slack, or meet in person at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York in February.

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