As a growing number of publishers gain traction with subscription products and place greater emphasis on them to drive revenue growth, some editorial staffers are questioning whether they’re being compensated sufficiently for their contributions. If subscription revenue is growing as a direct result of the value they’re creating, are editorial teams getting their fair share?
Part of the appeal of subscription models for publishers is their ability to create more direct relationships between editorial teams and the audiences they cater to. Funding journalism and content production with audience revenue often results in higher quality content and more straightforward business models, publishers say, by mitigating the need to chase pageviews and ad impressions or to prioritize the interests of sponsors or other third parties.
By the same token, subscription models typically provide a relatively clear view of how editorial performance translates to business outcomes. Publishers routinely report that high-quality, differentiated content is the most powerful driver of subscriber conversions, engagement and revenue, and although marketing and product teams can help maximize conversions and improve retention rates, the ability to grow content-led subscription products ultimately hinges on the strength of the underlying content they offer access to.
Meanwhile, the relationship between editorial and revenue can be more difficult to gauge for publishers that monetize primarily via advertising, commerce, events and other streams, with variables such as the performance of sales teams, fluctuations in demand, economic conditions, and a host of other factors muddying the waters.
A fair share
Most publishers operating successful subscription products openly acknowledge these dynamics, with executives attributing progress primarily to the work of their editorial teams and to their ongoing investments in high-quality content. But as publishers increasingly draw direct lines between editorial output and business performance, editorial staffers are doing the same.
Reporters and editors at a handful of major publishers said the growth of subscription models in recent years has made them reconsider how they should be compensated for their work. If business models are shifting to place greater emphasis on content as a fundamental driver of revenue, some question if their contributions are being rewarded adequately.
“If there’s a straight line between [the editorial department’s] work and subscription growth, that’s great, but that should apply to our remuneration as well,” said a reporter for a U.S.-based digital news publication that generates revenue from both subscriptions and advertising.
Some staffers at The New York Times appear to feel similarly. In February, NYT said its revenues grew 11% during 2022 and that it generated more profit than expected. That growth was due to “the success of [its] ‘subscription-first’ strategy and the willingness of readers to pay for high-quality journalism,” the company said. In the fourth quarter of 2022 subscription revenue grew nearly 18% percent, while advertising revenue remained flat.
That news caught the attention of NYT reporters and the NYT Union, given that the union was in the midst of negotiating with management over pay rises and changes to staff benefits at the time.
“This earnings report is a testament to the value that NY Times Guild workers create. But instead of agreeing to a contract with reasonable cost-of-living raises and a 65K salary floor, my company is heaping hundreds of millions on shareholders and fighting to cut our health care,” reporter Nick Confessore tweeted.
NYT Magazine writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner expressed similar sentiments, posting: “Today The New York Times’s leadership announced $400 million in stock buybacks to enrich investors, but the company won’t agree to reasonable cost-of-living raises or to pay some workers $65,000.”
A “better model for everyone”
While some editorial staffers working on subscription products are feeling short-changed, others believe that subscription revenue results in them being compensated more than if their work was monetized via advertising or other means. That view seems prominent among staffers at digital publications that have placed subscription revenue at the core of their operations, and particularly those that reserve the majority of their content for paying subscribers.
“It’s very clear in everything we do that journalism and journalists drive the company and the business,” said a reporter at one subscription-only digital publisher, adding, “That ties into how we are compensated. We get paid well here, and the benefits are good.”
“It’s a better model for everyone,” said the editor-in-chief of another subscriber-only publication. If nothing else, a subscription model affords his team peace of mind and greater freedom to pursue “more ambitious reporting,” he said.
Some reporters and editors say they’re now actively looking for roles at “subscription-first” media companies because the compensation is often more attractive, and/or because those operations often seem relatively financially stable.
Numerous media companies have laid off editorial staffers over the past 18 months, with many citing economic volatility and a lack of demand from advertisers as primary causes. Meanwhile, publishers say that subscription revenue remains relatively stable despite difficult conditions, which has enabled them to keep their editorial budgets consistent.
A double-edged sword
How much and on what basis editorial staffers are compensated varies from one publication and media company to the next, of course, and is influenced by a wide range of factors beyond just revenue models. It’s also largely personal – while some reporters and editors might feel they’re compensated well, others will inevitably feel they’re entitled to more.
It’s understandable that editorial departments would want to be compensated fairly for the value they create, but tying compensation closely to performance can be a double-edged sword. If subscription growth is a direct reflection of the editorial output, then – by the same logic – shrinking subscriber bases might be attributed to a lack of performance or value creation.
Editorial staffers at some high-profile publications have previously railed against attempts to tie their compensation to subscription-related goals, typically because those systems can expose them to downside as well as potential upside. Late last year, editorial staffers at Insider campaigned against the use of metrics such as page views and subscription conversions as a barometer for their success, for example.
As more publishers place subscription revenue at the core of their business models and growth plans, the connection between editorial performance and revenue generation could become increasingly clear. For editorial staffers, that could present opportunities to carve out more favorable compensation arrangements. But at the same time, it will likely expose them to greater pressure to consistently deliver the type of high-value content that keeps paying subscribers coming back for more.