What is Scandinavia’s paid content magic and is subscription fatigue real?

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Hello! This is Readers First, a monthly newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue innovation. I’m Researcher-In-Residence at INMA. E-mail me at: grzegorz.piechota@inma.org or DM via Slack (sign up here). 

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1. STATE OF DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTIONS. Why is all the growth concentrated in Scandinavia? 

The 2019 edition of Digital News Report, unveiled last week by Oxford’s Reuters Institute, showed only a small increase in the numbers of consumers paying for online news across the globe — and the growth was limited to a few countries, notably in Northern Europe.

  • Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark stand out: 34% of Norwegians said they paid for online news last year, and it’s 4 percentage points more than a year before and 8 percentage points more than in 2017. In Sweden, 27% paid for online news. In Finland, 16% did, and in Denmark — 15%. The median for 36 reported markets was just 10%.

How unique are the Scandinavian markets? These are rich and sound democracies with small, well-educated populations speaking rare languages. More than 90% people here enjoy high-speed broadband Internet, including mobile. No wonder Scandinavians lead the world in adoption of all kinds of digital media subscriptions — be it video streaming, audio, and news.

Print legacy is an asset, not a burden. Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, and Danes used to be the world’s heaviest newspaper readers, buying 350 to 500 copies per capita just a decade ago — double the number of copies Americans or Germans bought. These traditions count. Analysing historic print sales data and Oxford surveys, I found a positive relationship between markets where people bought many newspapers in the past and where they declared they paid for online news.

These favourable traditions and conditions are hardly replicable. There are lessons though about strategy in Scandinavia that might inspire peer publishers.

Invest in your brands, make readers loyal. Scandinavians demonstrate strong news brand awareness and channel preference as a majority chooses to visit news sites directly rather than via search, social media, or aggregators. Oxford data on a country level show a positive relationship between preference for direct access and digital news subscriptions.

Consumer behaviours are not static — influence them. Scandinavian publishers have been learning how to sell online news — and educating the audiences to buy — since early 2000s (Swedish Aftonbladet launched its paywall in 2003). Although public and commercial broadcasters remain free and alternative sources for quality news across the region, the majority of online users have been hitting paywalls at least once a week — from 56% in Finland to 80% in Norway. 

Help solve the mystery of Scandinavia: Why do you think they perform so well? E-mail me at grzegorz.piechota@inma.org 

2. THE MYTH OF SUBSCRIPTION FATIGUE. Why do national brands take it all in news subscriptions?

In Digital News Report 2019, Oxford researchers raised concerns about whether only the largest and prominent news media can turn reader revenue into a sustainable business model for journalism. A hypothesis: “People are becoming frustrated with being asked to pay separately for many different services online.”

A reason for concern: The median number of online news subscriptions per person among those that paid last year was one in almost every country surveyed by Reuters Institute: “Even among those who are most interested in news, the wealthiest, or the most educated, most people only pay money to one news organisation.”

A reason to cool down: This is not much different than in the print newspaper glory days. According to Leo Bogart’s “Press and Public,” the percentage of Americans who read two or more different newspapers in 1987 was just 23% of those who had read any newspaper. The richer and the better educated readers, the more likely they were to read more than one newspaper.

  • International studies show similar patterns. For example, an U.K. study from 2014 found only 14% to 32% of households read more than one newspaper, depending on the number of residents in a household.

A local news subscription gap: For the two-newspaper readers, the primary motivation — according to Bogart’s data — used to be getting more complete coverage of local news. So we’re perhaps observing not a subscription fatigue, but another sign of a local news crisis and a digital backwardness of many local publishers.

  • U.S. and international studies show local news publishers struggle in many markets, hit most by declining advertising revenues. Americans talk about “news deserts” or areas without any local coverage.

Two-speed digital transformation: In general, local news publishers are found to be less advanced in digital transformation than their national peers. Many local brands haven’t actually built direct and loyal audiences online. Digital marketing and product skills are scarce. No wonder their paywalls often underperform. These are first insights from a new benchmark study by INMA and London-based Institute for Media Strategies.

Are you a local publisher with an online subscription business? Do you want to take part in an INMA and IMS benchmark study? It’s private, in-depth, and free: e-mail me at grzegorz.piechota@inma.org 

3. PRODUCT LINES. How The Wall Street Journal expands its market and grows reader revenue.

Having reached 1.8 million digital-only subscribers, The Wall Street Journal set a new growth strategy that Chief Marketing Officer Suzi Watford described at the INMA congress in New York in May as “sell less for less and sell more for more.”

A new product line of the Journal has differentiated offers for four major customer segments: general news consumers, business professionals, executives, and corporate clients.

  • Main subscription offer: A membership for individual professionals is sold directly on the Journal’s Web site, providing access to business content on the site and events. Full price: US$39 a month for all access digital.
  • Selling less for less: Traditionally, this consisted of discount priced memberships for students (US$4 per month), but recently it has expanded to providing a mass audience with an access to general news and lifestyle articles from the Journal via Apple News+ subscription (US$9.99/month).
  • Selling more for more: WSJ has premium-priced memberships for corporate subscribers sold directly and providing access to premium business content on the Journal’s Web site. For example, WSJ Pro subscription for the Central Banking vertical is priced at US$2,000/year. Expensive? The Journal charges even more for memberships in its exclusive CEO Council and the networking events. Additionally, the Journal sells archives and data for the enterprise use via Factiva and other professional services of Dow Jones.

Product line design: The Journal’s innovative approach allows to flexibly adjust products and services to varying needs of customer segments and their lifetime value.

In the future, the Journal might further experiment with the line’s logic: for example, it might differentiate content by career stages as business schools do (e.g., bundles for first-time managers or retired executives). It might also bundle services addressing other needs than access to knowledge and community, such as lifestyle status (e.g., access to airport lounges or a cultural concierge).

Marketing channels: Thanks to Apple News+, the Journal samples content to consumers who might have never tasted its general news or lifestyle coverage and who might have never considered the subscription.

At the same time selling such under-priced bundles indirectly, similarly to how airlines or hotels do, the Journal prevents cannibalisation with higher-priced bundles sold on its Web site.

New channels for the Journal include bundling a discount-priced access with general interest subscriptions marketed to international audiences, such as with The Toronto Star in Canada.

Interested in learning more? Read this interview with WSJ’s Suzi Watford by Lucia Moses of Business Insider.

4. TRENDS. Are podcasts the new front pages?

Podcasting and audiobooks have been growing very fast in the past few years, reaching more than half of adults in the United States early this year, per Edison Research and Triton Digital study.

  • Worldwide numbers are smaller but still impressive. In 38 markets surveyed by Reuters Institute, every third adult, or 36%, accessed a podcast in the last month.
  • Most podcast listeners are young. A primary device is a smartphone. The majority of usage is at home and during commutes.
  • Audio format’s prospects might be further boosted by the adoption of smart speakers such as Amazon Echo or Google Home. Twenty-three percent of Americans has such a device, per Edison Research.

Publishers and editors have experimented with audio for years, and some have found a loyal audience.

  • The Daily, a podcast by The New York Times and a gold standard of quality news in online audio, in just two years grew to 2 million daily listeners, and its staff has expanded to 17. All Times’ podcasts reached 7.3 million monthly listeners in April, per Podtrac.
  • The Economist’s subscribers can listen to every story from each week’s print edition, read aloud by professional newsreaders. The feature dates back to 2007. The audio users are said to be the most engaged users of the weekly’s app.
  • BBC, a public broadcaster in the UK, served 20 million news briefings last year via major voice assistants (Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple Siri). A number of apps, or skills built exclusively for Alexa such as character-based experiences for children, served 265 million audio streams.

Today, audio monetisation is predominantly through advertising, as the most popular platform of Apple Podcasts lacks monetisation tools and analytics are rudimentary.

  • This will likely change, as the competition with other platforms such as Spotify, Pandora, and Google intensifies.
  • Podcast advertising revenue in the U.S. has grown at a double-digit rate since 2015 and is estimated by Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm, to hit this year US$515 million.

What’s next in audio? Check Nic Newman’s “The Future of Voice and the Implications for News.”

5. AUDIO. Strategic opportunities for subscription-first publishers.

A week ago in Athens at a Google-sponsored Newsgeist un-conference, I chatted with a number of European news executives and experts about how to think about audio from a reader revenue perspective. A summary:

  • Relevancy: Audio might help increase awareness and relevancy of news brands to young and old audiences. There’s a business case to offer a free signature product distributed across the major platforms targeting Millennials like The New York Times’ podcast The Daily, as well as to offer audio editions to older readers who might have growing difficulties to spend time with text like The Economist.
  • Engaged time: Podcasts and audio editions might help publishers increase the total time spent with news products. Although studies show text is a preferred format for news for most, users spend most their online time with audio, per eMarketer. Podcasts seem to offer a bridge: Weekly podcast consumers in the U.S. listen, on average, to more than six hours of content, per Edison Research.
  • Habit: Audio formats available within publishers’ apps might help develop a habit of regular use faster and therefore improve conversion and retention rates. Eighty-four percent of weekly podcast consumers listen to two episodes and more. At the same time, only 40% of weekly visitors to news sites come twice or more often, per Chartbeat

Do you have a case study to share with your peers? E-mail me: grzegorz.piechota@inma.org 

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota, Researcher-In-Residence at INMA, based in Oxford, England. Every month, I share results of my original research, notes from visits to digital subscription leaders, reflections on talks at conferences, and my favourite readings. Previous editions are archived online:

This newsletter is a public face of a year-long reader revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail me at grzegorz.piechota@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.


About Grzegorz Piechota

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