With endless content just a click away, securing steady revenue is one of the greatest challenges for the journalism industry in the internet age. Digital technology allows news outlets to reach a broader audience, but, with the availability of free online resources, news organizations now face the difficult task of finding consumers who are willing to pay.
Some in the space may be struggling to remain solvent, but several outlets have reported good news when it comes to winning over subscribers.
After being purchased by Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, The Washington Post remained profitable for the second year in a row in 2018 and announced plans to raise the number of journalists in its newsroom to 800. The Seattle Times, meanwhile, amassed 36,000 digital subscribers after implementing a digital-metered paywall in 2013.
In early August, The New York Times reported a $24 million profit in the second quarter of 2018, largely attributed to the addition of 109,000 digital-only subscribers. The Times now has 2.9 million digital-only subscribers — approximately 75 percent of its total subscribers.
To find out more about The Gray Lady’s recent subscription surge, PYMNTS spoke with David Gurian-Peck, The Times’ vice president of subscription growth and planning, on what news organizations must do to retain subscribers and how non-news businesses influenced The Times’ subscription strategy.
How “Fake News” Cries Rally Journalism Subscribers
In addition to issues surrounding subscription and revenues, the news industry must now contend with “fake news” accusations made by the Trump administration on an almost-daily basis. These cries of “fake news” — contrary to what one may believe — have led to increased consumer willingness to both seek out accurate news and pay for it. The Times saw a “big wave” of new subscribers following the 2016 presidential election. More significantly, The Times managed to retain these subscribers, even after introductory rates expired and higher rates kicked in.
In other words, the current political climate appears to help the news industry attract consumers.
“It’s really helping to demonstrate the value of our journalism,” Gurian-Peck said. “[It’s] a real moment in time where journalism is especially resonant now, more so than ever. We’re seeing that manifest itself both in bringing in new subscribers as well as retaining those we’ve [already] brought in.”
Keeping Up Subscription Momentum
A wave of new customers is certainly welcome for any subscription-based business, but The Times now faces the challenge of keeping that momentum going. The most important step in winning over consumers is demonstrating a product’s value. That means The Times and other organizations must prove what makes their journalism stand apart from the competition.
“Most people aren’t going to subscribe to a dozen different news sources, so why should they subscribe to yours?” Gurian-Peck said. “Talking about that differentiation and the type of work that we do is really valuable and important.”
Though The Times already has a long-standing reputation, last year, it launched a marketing campaign that highlighted its brand of journalism. The “Truth” campaign, as it was called, involved commercials that ran during normal TV spots, as well as during the Golden Globes and Academy Awards.
The Times also uses a range of digital assets to distinguish itself, including its podcast “The Daily,” which is available for free and subscribed to by millions. “The Daily” allows current and potential subscribers to build relationships with the journalists behind The Times’ stories. The company is also working on a weekly video documentary series with FX and Hulu.
“All these different vehicles … help tell our story,” Gurian-Peck said, “and demonstrate that the journalistic work that we’re doing in the newsroom is different and worth paying for.”
Digital Subscription Lessons For Digital News
In shaping its subscription strategy, The Times looks to the business models of non-news subscription services like Netflix, Spotify and Amazon for some inspiration.
“We have a lot to learn from digital-first subscription businesses … [such as] the digital experiences that they’ve built and the way they’ve rallied around that subscription-first mentality,” Gurian-Peck said. This digital-first approach is helping The Times connect and engage with subscribers.
The company is also improving its direct marketing strategy by using data science to better understand how subscribers are engaging with The Times. It then uses that information to encourage engagement.
“[As we get] more sophisticated … with our targeting, [we’ll know] which messages to put in front of which readers at what point in their lifecycle,” he said, “so we can serve their needs and serve our business goals.” This includes sending readers news stories relevant to their interests, and using data to choose the best times during a reader’s subscription term to encourage them to download The Times’ app.
“Building that level of sophistication in our messaging, and using data science to power that, is where we’re headed,” he said.
The Times and other news organizations must continue to adjust their strategies to keep consumers engaged, but the recent surge in paid subscriptions has revealed an important piece of information: There are consumers who are willing to pay for their news.
“It’s really rewarding to see that there’s a clear consumer willingness to pay for [journalism],” Gurian-Peck said. “There’s no doubt the news climate over the past couple of years has increased the willingness to pay.”
For that momentum to continue, news organizations must demonstrate that they are producing news that’s fit to print, and pair top-flight journalism with data and technology to win and secure subscribers.