In this week’s Subscription Publishing Briefing:
Original news reporting drives subscriptions
News publishers that consistently publish high-quality investigative journalism “end up thriving” in the long term, editors from the FT, Guardian, and the New York Times told attendees at last week’s Sir Harry Summit in London. It may be difficult to tie single pieces of investigative journalism directly to increases in subscriber conversions and revenue, but there’s a cumulative effect over time, the panel said.
“I do think that over time, that tells people we’re a certain kind of news organization and while I can’t make a direct link, I believe that there’s a link,” said former New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet.
Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf added that the newspaper’s six-year investigation into fraudulent German fintech company Wirecard led to a “massive” uplift in subscribers, while Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner said investigations have had a significant impact on driving reader donations to the news brand.
As noted by James Harding – the former editor of The Times who co-founded “slow news” outlet Tortoise Media – there’s rarely a direct correlation between the time and resources editorial organizations invest in investigative projects and the commercial results they produce. “You shouldn’t think in that way, you’ve got to think overall about ‘what are we here for’ and over time believe that people will come and support it,” he said.
The ability to deliver high-quality, differentiated content remains a prerequisite for successful content-based subscription and membership programs, particularly as we enter the era of generative artificial intelligence. As major platforms such as Google transition to AI-driven search results, publishers capable of producing original reporting and journalism on a consistent basis could be positioned to survive and thrive with subscription revenue at the center of their business models. Meanwhile, those relying on commoditized and repackaged content might find themselves sidelined as consumers increasingly rely on generative AI to relay that information to them rather than publishers’ sites.
Google steps up subscription initiatives for publishers as it transitions to AI-driven search
Google’s increased efforts to aid news publishers’ subscription and reader revenue initiatives could help keep publishers onside as it transitions its core search product to emphasize AI-driven responses.
Last week, Google unveiled plans to provide AI-generated answers to users’ queries within search results pages. If rolled out widely, the change could significantly reduce the volume of traffic the search giant sends to third-party sites and may prompt publishers to attempt to limit Google’s access to their content if they feel a value exchange is lacking.
It’s clear a shift to AI search results threatens to upend some publishers’ business models, but it remains likely that Google will value ongoing access to publishers’ content to help inform timely, high-quality responses in an increasingly competitive generative AI landscape. Google remains incentivized to ensure publishers are compensated one way or another, therefore, and helping them generate revenue from subscriptions and reader revenue could enable it to maintain visibility into their content.
NYT launches subscriber-only audio app
The New York Times launched a dedicated audio app for news subscribers last week, which it said it hopes will become the “front page” for its audio output. It will offer access to its flagship podcasts in addition to new subscriber-exclusive audio content.
According to Stephanie Preiss, who heads up NYT’s audio business, the app is intended to help both attract and retain paying subscribers. “We hope that this will expand the universe of subscribers, but I think that we are very interested in making sure that Times subscribers have a better experience of audio,” she told Vanity Fair.
For publishers, offering access to subscriber-only audio via major podcasting platforms has proved challenging to date. Technical limitations imposed by the major podcast platforms have meant publishers relied on workarounds to offer subscriber-only audio, which required audiences to jump through multiple hoops and subscribe to personalized feeds in order to get access to the content they paid for. Unsurprisingly, this has taken a toll on listenership for subscriber-only audio and prompted many publishers to avoid the hassle entirely.
A dedicated app will enable NYT to sidestep those hurdles and could enable it to offer a more compelling and engaging audio experience for subscribers. It remains to be seen how widely the app will be adopted and used by NYT subscribers, but as audio becomes a more central part of many publishers’ subscription products and offerings we expect to see more publishers experimenting with subscriber-only audio apps in the months ahead.
Washington Post offers new subscribers $5 when they pay with Venmo
The Washington Post is offering new subscribers a $5 rebate when they pay for a subscription using the digital payment service Venmo. Digital subscriptions are currently being offered at $4 for the first weeks, meaning the publisher is effectively paying new subscribers $1 to take out a 1-month trial.
“This special offer highlights our efforts to reach a young, socially-connected audience. We see this unique deal as an opportunity to tap into the next generation of readers who may have never considered subscribing to The Post or any other news outlet,” said Phoebe Connelly, director of Next Generation Audience Development at The Washington Post in a press release announcing the partnership.
Publishers are increasingly experimenting with joint promotions and “bundle” offers with third-party partners as they hunt for new ways to attract and retain subscribers. Earlier this year Wapo offered new subscribers access to meditation and mindfulness service Headspace, for example. Elsewhere, The Wall Street Journal partnered with Apple to offer a free year of digital access to new Apple Card customers, and The Economist partnered with Indian business and finance publication Mint to offer readers access to both publications through a single subscription offer.
As they look for more creative and cost-effective ways to unlock high-quality subscribers, we expect to see more publishers teaming up with non-media companies to cross-promote products in the months ahead.
Also worth noting:
- Publishers’ first quarter earnings reports were a mixed bag. Digital advertising was down year-over-year while subscriptions remained a bright spot, Digiday reports.
- Future will begin focusing its efforts on digital subscriptions in a way it never has before, according to new chief executive John Steinberg.
- Gannett says it’s using targeted emails to encourage subscribers to reengage through content and activities.
- Publishers may be focusing too much on behavioral user data and too little on user research, according to subscription consultant Robert Skrob.
- Editorial cartoons are driving audience engagement and reader retention at The Minneapolis Star Tribune