Of the people we surveyed, one thing became very clear: people say they don’t want to pay for news. The vast majority of respondents, regardless of generation, say they currently do not pay for content: Paying for digital news content is not yet mainstream.
This may seem surprising in light of the recent proliferation of subscription news services over the past few years, ranging from The New York Times to Business Insider, Bloomberg, Vanity Fair, and New York Magazine. Source: Comscore Custom Survey, U.S. & U.K., February 2019
The Promise of the Paywall The digital publishing landscape though is already flooded with fledgling subscription offerings, making it a steep barrier for new entries. What is the reality of the landscape? The New York Times reached 3.3 million digital subscribers last year. The publisher cited its discounted introductory offer, the growth of its tertiary products such as its exclusive cooking app and digital crosswords, as well as its blockbuster content like the Kavanaugh hearings and “Anonymous” as key drivers of this growth. So, while audiences say they won't pay for news, clearly, if they receive value beyond just paying for the news, as The New York Times has demonstrated, publishers can find success. While revenue for publishers used to just be advertising, it has now broadened with publishers finding new sources of revenue.
As far as utility, business publishers like The Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg promise subscribers access to vital information and data that promises to help them do their jobs better - or ideally make more money. On the other end of the spectrum, publishers like TheSkimm provide subscribers with tools designed to make their lives easier, like a pop cultural calendar offering. This gives audiences a reason to turn to a specific publisher. Exclusive content is also another driver. Subscription-based publications such as The Information and The Athletic promise a mix of original reporting and depth of coverage in areas of intense consumer interest (Silicon Valley, Sports). The most successful subscriptions promise exclusive, high interest, must-read content. This won’t be easy for general interest news publishers. And lastly, premium content. Subscription services like Hulu or Crunchyroll provide access to premium content that is not available anywhere else or is rarely accessible through traditional media channels.
So what are people willing to pay for? Just because people say they don’t want to pay doesn’t mean that they won’t pay. There are three content attributes that help explain what people will pay for, based on the examination of proven business models:
Utility Exclusivity Premium content: Implications for publishers Bundling may be crucial for most publishers to pivot successfully to paid subscriptions. Successful examples from the broader media world such as the Spotify/Hulu and Sprint/Hulu partnerships should serve as inspiration. We may see more publishers join forces to drive subscription bundles or align themselves with video and/or wireless providers. This is already happening - led by one of the most powerful players in technology. Apple recently announced the launch of Apple News +, a $9.99-permonth subscription offering featuring content from the likes of The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and upwards of 200 magazines. Given Apple’s distribution and marketing clout, this product bears watching. However, it’s worth noting that several giant news publishers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, are sitting out on Apple News+ for the time being. The fear is that individual publishers’ brands could be diluted by a “Netflix for news” - and they may lose a direct connection with readers (along with the consumer data that comes with those relationships).
Beyond looking for bundling opportunities and creating exclusive content, there are other ways publishers can move beyond consumers’ selfproclaimed aversion to subscriptions. User experience, for instance, can be a big differentiator for subscription services. Hulu TV and YouTube TV are praised almost as frequently for providing outstanding user interfaces as much as they are for offering better pricing and flexible packages.
Curation of content is also a must. Publishers need to provide added value to entice people to subscribe. We’ve seen similar shifts in video and music with the growth of Netflix’s recommendation rating and Spotify’s suggested playlists. Curation also helps reduce the risk of clickbait since you can filter content to let the cream rise to the top.
Conclusion. What are the key takeaways for publishers and news organizations?
Publishers need to build a presence across platforms. Regardless of generation, publishers need to make sure they are prominent on all platforms. Be it social or built-in mobile apps, it is clear that younger generations like Gen Z are less brand loyal and more channel loyal, so publishers need to take this into consideration when attempting to optimize reach across Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z.
Publishers are not just battling Google rankings anymore; the war has become more platform specific across social media and built-in news apps. Local news remains a less-cluttered opportunity for new players to emerge.
Publishers need to find ways to turn readers into ‘members’ That means finding ways to incentivize customers to register, create accounts, sign up for newsletters via some sort of value exchange. This means creative approaches such as offering unique services or products on top of content. Examples include The Skimm’s calendar product, which keeps its members automatically abreast of upcoming news and pop cultural events, as well as BuzzFeed and others providing exclusive shopping deals. The social finance publisher Stackin’ has even launched exclusive banking and stock trading products for users.
Publishers should continue to push for more revenue streams outside of subscriptions or advertising Since audiences seem they want to discuss the news more in person than online – across all generations – publishers can tap into this trend through live activations. Brands like PopSugar and Complex have scored big with live consumer events and we expect copycats to emerge. Other publishers have turned back to brick and mortar partnerships, like BuzzFeed’s cookware pact with Walmart. Similarly, in light of The New York Times success with Wirecutter, more publishers are beginning to experiment with melding e-commerce and service content as another way to push beyond traditional revenue streams.
Sources: Comscore Media Metrix Multi-Platform, custom survey fielded by Comscore in February 2019. 1. DeSilver, Drew. “Generations and Age.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 26 Feb. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/topics/generations-and-age/. 2. “Identity Shifters: Gen Z Exploration | RPA Marketing Report.” Identity Shifters: Gen Z Exploration | RPA Marketing Report, identityshifters.rpa.com/.