If 2018 was the year of the subscription, 2019 could be the year of the subscription backlash.
Reuters Institute released a new report that predicts, among other things, that subscriptions will be the top priority for publishers this year, with 52% saying it’s their main revenue focus followed by display advertising at just 27%.
But the report also cautions that only a small percentage of consumers in most markets are willing to pay for digital subscriptions, so these efforts are likely to meet resistance.
The institute’s 2017 report, Paying for News, found that across 33 countries, the percent of people who paid for an ongoing news subscription tended to be high in the Nordic countries (the highest being Norway at 15%), and fell to the mid single digits in most countries (the US was at 8% and the UK, 3%).
In 2019, “subscription barriers could end up annoying consumers further and giving people another reason to turn away from news,” the new report says.
The survey was done in December and based on 200 senior execs from media companies in 29 countries.
The past few years have seen an uptick in publishers trying to become more reader- and less advertising- reliant. A handful of news outlets like The New York Times and The Economist now get more than half their revenue from readers. Other publications from Condé Nast’s Wired and Vanity Fair have erected digital paywalls. Still others like The Daily Beast and BuzzFeed have introduced memberships that come with member-exclusive content. Fortune, HuffPost, and Yahoo Finance are among those expected to launch paid offerings this year.
The Times surpassed 4 million subscriptions in the third quarter of last year, the most in its history. “The market of people willing to pay for high-quality, independent, differentiated journalism of the type the Times produces is increasing, which leads us to project that there is much more room for us to grow our subscription base,” a spokesperson said.
But there already are signs that there are limits to the news subscription trend. Once publishers sign up their most fervent fans, they have to spend more to rope in the next tier of customers. Over the past year, newspapers like The Times and The Washington Post grew subs in part because they lowered the number of articles people can read per month for free. In the fourth quarter, The Times resorted to heavy discounting.
Publishers including The Times and The Washington Post are also counting on overseas markets to grow, and to combat a lower propensity to subscribe in those markets and lower awareness, they’ve lowered their rates, which cuts into revenue per subscriber.
Condé Nast said it would roll out paywalls on more of its titles but hasn’t done so. CNN said it would introduce paid offerings in 2018, but those plans are still in the brainstorming phase.
Outside the news category, there’s an increasing number of streaming video, music, and other paid entertainment options competing for people’s time and money.
The Economist has had a paid online edition since 2010 and is considered a success story in getting people to pay for online news. But it’s had to up its game since the competition has grown up around it. It doesn’t help that close competitors have cut their prices as The Economist has held steady.
“We are definitely sensing we’re in much stronger company,” said Marina Haydn, managing director of circulation for The Economist. “That will impact all publishers as we’re competing for similar audience and people’s time. We just have to work harder on becoming even more sophisticated in winning and keeping subscribers.”
Interest in Trump fueled record subscription sign ups for a number of news outlets in the first few months after the 2016 presidential election, but the Trump bump didn’t last. The daily time readers spend on articles that mention Trump spiked around the inauguration in January 2017 but has been essentially been level ever since, according to a Chartbeat analysis of 5,000 publisher sites.
And some new digital subscription plans from publishers like HuffPost have been met with skepticism.
Longtime news analyst Ken Doctor said people will continue to pay for what they deem to be unique, substantial, high-quality content and that there’s no natural limit to that market.
“HuffPost does so many stories they’re following others on,” he said. “They don’t distinguish themselves with their original reporting that those with a high digital subscription number do. It has a clear point of view, and Lydia [Polgreen, editor in chief] has sharpened that, but it’s not a clear source of undifferentiated reporting.”
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