Audience interest in news content dipped significantly in 2021, resulting in a notable softening of demand for news-focused subscription products. Now, many publishers are seeking ways to diversify their subscriber offerings beyond just news, not only to drive subscriber growth but – more crucially – to maintain their existing subscriber bases.
Most news publishers we work with at Toolkits saw slowdowns in new subscriber conversions in 2021 compared with the two years prior. There are many reasons for those slowdowns, and they vary from one publisher to the next, but a major contributing factor has been a broad and ongoing decline in demand for news.
Engagement with content related to the coronavirus pandemic has diminished over the past 12 months, and a spike in interest in major politics and business stories — such as the Trump presidency in the U.S., and Brexit in Europe – has levelled off as well. According to data from Similarweb, 39 of the top 50 English-language news sites have seen reductions in traffic over the past 12 months. Audience analytics firm Chartbeat said traffic to 4,000 sites it tracks declined 8% between 2020 and 2021.
The slowdown in news engagement spreads beyond publishers’ sites, however. Social media interactions related to news articles also declined over 60% between 2020 and 2021, and viewing of primetime cable news declined over 35%, Axios reported.
A retention headache
Declining interest in news leaves some publishers in a tricky spot. Many attempted to capitalize on heightened news demand over the past four years with highly attractive introductory offers and discounts specifically marketed around up-to-the-minute information and analysis. Retaining subscriber bases built on those specific value propositions and terms won’t be easy if subscribers feel less need to access such information.
Meanwhile, competition for subscription dollars is heating up rapidly, and subscribers are coming to expect greater breadth and value for money from the content products they pay for. We expect over the coming year that many readers may dial back the number of subscriptions they pay for – particularly those related to news – and that cancellation decisions may hinge largely on the volume and breadth of content on offer per subscription dollar.
To add to publishers’ challenges for 2022, many are also predicting a relatively “quiet” year for news with relatively few significant global news events scheduled or expected. While that might free up time and resources to focus on new projects and initiatives, it also presents challenges for audience growth and development.
Going beyond news
As a result, news publishers seeking to grow their subscriber bases are now exploring ways to diversify their products beyond straight news, investing in more service-based and practical content, or adding community features, subscriber perks or even less content-centric features such as games or data and research tools.
Some publishers are further down this road than others. The New York Times, for example, already augments its news and politics coverage with product review service Wirecutter, Cooking and Games. It’s now seeking to broaden its scope further with a possible acquisition of subscription-based sports publisher The Athletic.
Elsewhere, publishers such as The Washington Post appear to be playing catch up, with a focus on hard news potentially leaving them more exposed to audience declines and subscriber churn that inevitably result from a decline in news interest. The Washington Post’s subscriber base declined from 3 million in January 2021 to 2.7 million in October, and traffic to its properties in October was down 28%, year-over-year, according to WSJ.
The Post is now attempting to broaden its coverage areas and add further value for its subscribers beyond just news content. Many of its competitors are doing the same, aggressively exploring coverage areas to expand into and “own”, or looking for potential acquisitions to add more meat to their bones.
Many publishers are also leaning heavily into commentary and analysis, hiring columnists, prominent independent writers and those with large and engaged social media followings to author subscriber-only newsletters exploring a wide range of niche topics and catering to a variety of interests.
Others are investing in events, video, virtual reality experiences and even educational products in an attempt to build more rounded content packages that might retain audience and subscriber interest in an environment where hard news is less of a draw than it was a year or two ago.
Now more than ever, news publishers will find that highly differentiated content and original, high-quality reporting and journalism will be required to move the needle on new subscriber conversions and retention.
But with reduced base-level demand for news, top-quality journalism and reporting alone may not be enough to maintain the subscriber bases they’ve amassed after busy news years and a period of price slashing and aggressive marketing initiatives. Publishers will likely need to generate audience interest with new content initiatives and features in order to grow their subscriber bases further in 2022, rather than relying on the news cycle itself to drive demand.
For more practical guidance on building sustainable subscription and membership products and businesses, see the Subscription Publishing Toolkit.