Nine Publishing drives subscription growth by tightening paywalls

By Lauren Vadnjal

The Australian Financial Review

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


By Mex Cooper

The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times, and WAToday

Melbourne, Australia


Nine Publishing’s two major metropolitan mastheads, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, have evolved over the decades from Web sites centered on reach and digital advertising to newsrooms powered by reader subscriptions.

Following a surge in subscriptions during the pandemic, the newsrooms worked hard to retain this audience by concentrating on engagement metrics and successfully minimising churn.

Retention remains a key goal for the newsrooms, but as the threat of post-COVID cancellations subsided and the news cycle returned to unpredictable but not unprecedented patterns, we honed in on how to further drive subscription growth.

In February 2023, supported by the Google News Initiative, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age worked on a series of newsroom experiments. We were interested in refining an experimentation framework to “prioritise initiatives, set audience outcomes, and improve newsroom sustainability.”

The first of three experiments the newsrooms undertook was to test the impact of tightening our paywall on subscriber acquisition.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age tightened its paywall last year, giving editorial staff a way to manually tag articles that should be behind the paywall.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age tightened its paywall last year, giving editorial staff a way to manually tag articles that should be behind the paywall.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have a registration wall and a metered paywall. However, insights gained from our audience data suggested much of our visitor traffic was, in fact, repeat users actively bypassing these walls to read for free.

We wanted to test what would happen if we further limited access to select stories chosen by the newsrooms. By manually applying a tag that initiated the paywall, we could track which stories, topics, and types of content were more likely to push people to pay.

Rules were established on what was to be paywalled as we tested the approach. In the first few months of the experiment, the newsrooms manually applied the hard paywall to about 11% of content. Editors and journalists had to question which stories they felt could not be found anywhere else and would compel someone to subscribe. We then tracked the audience response.

Within weeks, the number of weekly subscribers via our paywalls increased by 425% while non-subscriber traffic was not significantly affected. The growth continued and when the experiment’s three-month timeframe ended, manually paywalling content became continued practice.

The success of the strategy has led to the volume of content paywalled by the newsrooms growing from 11% to 40%. However, we’re now experimenting with the ratio of locked versus unlocked content to balance subscription growth while also providing content sampling to genuinely new audiences.

Investigations, local news, and education stories have been among our top converters, but so too have quizzes, magazine features, first-person pieces, and our Good Food Guide’s list of best restaurants. We have also discovered niche content areas that may not attract a large audience, but with an audience that values it so highly they are willing to pay for it.

Content that converts can also differ from content that we know engages our existing subscribers. A story may push someone to sign up, but once with us, there are issues and topics that our audience expect us to cover as part of their subscription.

For example, a feature from our premium Good Weekend magazine might persuade someone to pay, but they expect that with their subscription they will be served our reportage on federal politics, sport, and world issues and often engage most with this content once subscribed.

These dual goals of retention and acquisition mean our newsrooms have to consider the value of each story we produce.

The AFR successfully targeted off-platform users with tighter paywalls

Unlike The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, The Australian Financial Review (Nine Publishing’s national business masthead) does not have a metered paywall model to play with, but has still been able to take learnings from this experiment.

All the Financial Review’s content is locked behind a hard paywall. However, our marketing strategy allows some new readers to sample certain articles for free via search or social channels.

Using a similar process, we were able to test the impact of removing sampling on specific content by showing the paywall to all new readers. An early experiment saw us try this on select pieces from our 2023 Young Rich List, an annual list that gets high volumes of search and social referrals. This resulted in a 50% increase in paywall conversions year on year.

We have since extended this experiment to a few of our flagship business columns, and continue to test and learn from the results.

Tracking conversions

The conversion data for all our mastheads will be tracked in a new dashboard that looks at last-touch conversions from both metered and manually paywalled articles.

Previously, we had focused on tracking the conversion journey — anything a user consumed in the 30 days before they subscribed — because our metered paywall meant we could not easily understand the difference between the appearance of the paywall pushing someone to subscribe or the content itself.

When we manually tag content, we know they will see the paywall so can more easily ascribe their actions to the content.

Making our goals easy to understand

Tightening our paywalls has not only turbo-charged our subscription growth but also our audience-first strategy.

A new subscription is a metric easily understood and valued by our newsrooms, which are now more invested than ever in understanding how our subscribers and potential subscribers interact with and value our journalism. One of our editors even joked that checking the number of conversions on a story is the first thing he does when he wakes up each morning.

While we don’t expect everyone to be this obsessive over conversions, it’s rewarding to see such strong engagement with our overarching subscription goals.

After spending years working with our newsrooms to deepen their understanding of data and insights, we’re now at a place where a more nuanced approach is possible. Our editors and journalists understand that some content is about driving deeper engagement with existing subscribers, while other pieces are about broadening the top of the funnel for readers who are willing to pay for news — and we’re able to measure the success of each using a broader range of metrics.

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