There is no one-size-fits-all paywall model, a panel told attendees at INMA’s World Congress of News Media on Monday afternoon. The best model compromises between the needs of an organisation and its audience, and it is not always an easy balance to find.

“A paywall and subscription product is the product of thousands of tiny decisions, not unlike a puzzle,” Nicholas Gray, chief executive officer at The Australian, said.

Nicholas Gray of The Australian, Espen Egil Hansen of Aftenposten, and Danica Stanciu of Politico Pro share paid content model differences at their news media companies and why they work.
Nicholas Gray of The Australian, Espen Egil Hansen of Aftenposten, and Danica Stanciu of Politico Pro share paid content model differences at their news media companies and why they work.

The Australian runs a freemium model, which Gray said is the best option for the company because it helped the brand become known for putting a value on its content. Full access to the Web site costs subscribers A$8 a week.

“I believe some news brands are a little too apologetic about asking audiences to pay for their brilliant journalism,” he said.

Even as models continue to evolve, Gray said his company will never be completely free: “We now know that digital subscription models will be the future of news media like at The Australian.”

Consistency is also a crucial piece to the freemium model, but that does not keep the company from experimenting in other areas of their offerings.

“We are experimental,” Gray said. “We’ve launched a bunch of things, but we never allow them to launch at a cost to our traditional content and services.”

As The Australian moves forward, Gray said the company will focus on three areas of potential fluctuation to maximise the value of the company and its content.

  1. Continue to build value in the product rather than atomising it: “We know from our research that the vast majority of our subscribers are quite price elastic and would in fact pay more for enhanced products.”
  2. Personalisation vs. curation: “I believe our editors’ curation matters most and that will continue to be our algorithm for our homepage.”
  3. Hard vs. dynamic paywalls: “I remain a skeptic about whether this will do a better job than our current model because it requires a pretty significant technical investment.”

While Gray believes freemium is the best model for The Australian, Espen Egil Hansen said a metered paywall works best for Aftenposten.

Hansen, chief executive officer and editor-in-chief of the company said that after six free articles, visitors hit a hard paywall asking them to subscribe. Aftenposten has seen a 46% growth in digital subscriptions year-on-year, reaching almost 110,000 digital subscriptions.

He shared six lessons from this hybrid model, with which they have been experimenting since its launch in 2013:

1. The important decision was not what paywall model, but to make the user Aftenposten’s primary customer. Ten years ago, Aftenposten’s main customer was advertisers. At the time, 70% of revenue was from advertisers. Today, the company sees 70% of its revenue come from subscriptions. Swapping this business model may have been the most important decision the company could have made, Hansen said: “Because when you swap business model and your main customer is someone else, it influences how you work on all levels of the organisation.” 

2. How Aftenposten sells its product has changed fundamentally. Like many publishers, traditional sales techniques included telemarketing, and large marketing campaigns. Now, the company’s content sells itself. “Today, the main window for selling Aftenposten, introducing Aftenposten, it’s the article,” Hansen said. “This influenced, fundamentally, how we work.” 

3. Meter and hard paywalls attract and convert users with very different motivations — Aftenposten need both. “In this hybrid model with a meter and a hard paywall combined, we attract different customers,” Hansen said. The meter tends to attract loyal readers, those that have a positive relationship with the company, he said. The hard paywall attracts many more customers, but they churn more often. Together, they draw a perfect mixture or users for Aftenposten.

4. There is strength in the hybrid. Meter makes sure users get to try content' hard paywall clarifies the value proposition. While the meter makes sure users get to try Aftenposten’s content, the paywall clarifies the company’s value proposition, Hansen said: “We actually think that this mechanism helps the meter. It’s a day to day reminder of the value.”

5. The newsroom needs to own the strategy. Technology is not the hard part, Hansen said. Creating the right culture is the challenge. “It’s not enough that we have a good marketing department working with this. The newsroom has to be fully behind it and fully work. With engagement, with selling, introducing articles, the brand to new customers.”

6. Aftenposten focused too much on recruiting new subscriptions, too little on building a deeper relationship with those already on board. Hansen told the crowd he believes his company is not the only one to make that mistake: “We did this even if we had a very deep knowledge already four years ago. And we decided we will not do this mistake. And we did it anyway.”

Unlike The Australian and Aftenposten, Politico Pro has created a hard paywalled subscription offering with a series of products, aiming to reach an audience with a specific interest in policy. Other products that may appeal to this audience are often overwhelming and do not deliver content in a way that understood audience needs.

“We saw that a lot of news was simply news and lacked actionable insight for this audience,” Danica Stanciu, the company’s vice president, said.

Explaining what worked for Politico Pro, Stanciu said leveraging Politico’s existing brand was key to success. Business and editorial collaboration, as well as listening to customers, have also been important. The company’s editorial breadth creates value for its users. In its health care vertical, 50 reporters cover policy across the United States.

“We are the authoritative voice on healthcare policy and we aim to have that authority on every other vertical that we have,” she said.

Stanciu shared challenges Policito Pro has faced as it has evolved. Underinvesting in data and process, replicating a journalistic model with tools and tech as an afterthought, and importing known but not necessarily best practices have been areas of learning.

Despite setbacks, Politico Pro continues to grow, thanks to its content. Offering the right product can have an impact on invested audiences, Stanciu said: “We are covering policy in the European Union unlike anyone else. We’re really shaking up that market.”