In 2020, at the peak of the global pandemic, more people were paying for content from trusted news sources or hobby and entertainment magazines delivering much-needed distractions. In 2021, subscriber retention became the primary focus for publishers.
For Media Voices annual Media Moments report, Esther Kezia Thorpe has been looking at what publishers were doing to make sure people paying for content stick around.
- Magazine publishers appear to be doing best in the reader retention stakes. The largest US magazines managed to hold on to 95% of their circulation through the Covid crisis. Late last year Press Gazette reported that for the top US 50 magazine brands, print subscriptions have fallen by 7%, but digital subscriptions are up a massive 70% over the last two years.
- The picture is bleaker for print newspaper publishers; America’s top 25 newspapers lost 20% of their weekday print circulation since the Covid-19 crisis began. Although print newspaper subscriptions have been trending downwards since the 1960s, stay-at-home orders accelerated the rate of decline significantly.
- The story is different for news publishers with a strong digital offering, with many continuing to add subscribers through 2021. Leading the pack is the New York Times; 455,000 new digital subscriber were paying for the NYT’s content in the third quarter of 2021. Management says the title is on track to reach its goal of 10 million subscriptions by 2025.
- The Atlantic’s total circulation of 833,410 is higher than at any time in its 164 year history. CEO Nicholas Thompson says the magazine has achieved this without discounting, moving readers away from low introductory offers to prices that reflect the real worth of the brand’s journalism. Thomson said:
The average value of each subscription has grown a stunning 45 percent since the first half of 2019, right before we launched our paywall.
- Reporting 1.12 million subscribers in the summer of 2021, The Economist has also continued to grow its subscriber base. The addition of 90,000 new subscribers last year represents its largest ever single-year increase. The majority of new subscribers are digital-only, with the weekly’s audience team prioritising a suite of streamlined digital products.
A recent report from the INMA suggests that figuring out how to engage and convert ‘casual, infrequent and picky’ readers will be key to continuing sustainable growth. Research from Northwestern University shows almost half of local news outlets’ digital subscribers are ‘zombie’ readers visiting websites less than once a month, real revenue but a fragile foundation for future business.
While paywalls drive the majority of reader revenue, there is a developing trend for readers to support publications they believe in through a ‘patronage model’. Without a paywall, The Guardian reported a total of 1,000,035 digital subscriptions at the end of 2021.
Fears of subscription fatigue are yet to materialise, and Newsletter platform Substack hit 1 million paid subscribers in November. Although it could be seen as a collection of smaller publishers, the milestone demonstrates the willingness of audiences to pay for content directly from creators.
Spotting the subscriptions opportunity Twitter has launched a paid option, Twitter Blue, offering users additional functionality and ad-free articles for $2.99 a month. A portion of that subscriber revenue will go towards supporting partner publications.