This is an abridged, edited transcript of a paper given by Jacqui Park, Head of Network Strategy and Innovation, International Press Institute (IPI) this year in Sydney.
A funny thing happened in Australia and New Zealand on the way through the two-year Covid pandemic. It left us, the news media, in a better place as it hurried on the necessary transformation to a stronger, more sustainable, more digital place.
It’s not what we expected. Think back to those early pandemic days. It looked dark. Stuck in work from home lock-down back in March 2020, I remember reading Matthew Ball’s blog where he warned us what was coming:
Economic crises, natural disasters, and other long-tail events tend to accelerate underlying trends, exacerbate balances of power, and unravel businesses, business models, and business practices that were sustained by a robust economy.
Back then, I read that quote with more than a little trepidation. Did this mean we should expect the long-term slide in the advertising business model that had sustained news media for over 150 years would turn to free fall? Would it send us careering off the road to sustainability, crashing us instead into the ditch?
Well, yes. Yes. It did. And No. No. It didn’t.
Yes, it did, in part…
Advertising did collapse in the second quarter of 2020. It was quick and comprehensive, almost existential. Fast forward to 2022, and it is clear that it’s shifted: before the pandemic, most news media advertising dollars were still in print. Now, it’s mainly digital.
Print advertising chiefly remains in four narrow categories: Residual travel ads, home furnishings (as a sort of insert catalog replacement), racing details funded by the industry, and, in Australia, currently, political advertising from the billionaire-funded start-up political party, the United Australia Party.
As they skidded in the advertising collapse, some Australian media slammed on the business model brakes with cuts and closures. Regional and local media were particularly affected, with Australia’s largest company, News Corp, effectively abandoning the space, closing its suburban network across Australia’s largest four cities and all but three of its chain of regional newspapers. Initially, these endured as digital offerings. But about a year later, these were folded into the company’s state-based mastheads.
In New Zealand, the tough early pandemic lock-down restricted the printing and distribution of newspapers. The country’s business paper, the National Business Review, made a virtue out of necessity and stopped printing for good. The major magazine group—then owned, like Australia’s by Germany’s Bauer group—closed all titles. (Some were subsequently sold and re-launched under new management.)
Ok. That’s the Yes, things did go bad.
No, it didn’t, in part…
In the last two years, the business model has – miraculously – become sustainable, even profitable, in a shift from a legacy reliance on declining print-based advertising to a reader revenue model, with the core of reliable cash flow coming from subscriptions.
Although it seems to have happened quickly, it’s drawn on a decade’s worth of digital innovation and industry reconstruction. But, crucially, the final shift to digital sustainability in each country is being made possible by government intervention – through the case of the so-called News Media Bargaining Code in Australia and the Public Interest Journalist Fund in New Zealand.
The shift to revenue sustainability is more than where you make your money. It’s that big shift from a predominately business-to-business play, where news media aggregated audiences and then sold them to advertisers. In its place is the direct-to-consumer model. Self-evidently, it changes who you are selling to, and so your whole sales strategy.
More importantly, it changes your journalism and your product design, as the Australian and New Zealand experiences demonstrate.
I need to stress that digital advertising remains a viable model in certain circumstances. Each of the two major corporations in Australia—News Corp and Nine—have profitable free ad-supported digital products, news.com.au in the case of News Ltd and nine.com.au in the case of Nine. Similarly, Stuff in New Zealand, a broad network built around its leading daily mastheads in Wellington, Taranaki and Christchurch, is still predominantly advertising-supported.
There’s some interesting start-up style innovation built off advertising. New Daily is a digital news service mainly delivered through email. It relies on a mix of brand advertising from its pension fund founders (a kind of sponsorship) and programmatic advertising. In-daily has built a local voice through advertising and donations in Adelaide, and last year, a partner organization In-Q launched in Queensland.
Other examples include daily newsletter Squiz, youth-site Junkee and Starts at 60, aimed at the over 60s audience. In New Zealand, SpinOff has supported its free offering through a mix of sponsored verticles, donations and membership, and custom publishing for clients.
The rise of subscriptions
But the core of revenue sustainability is now subscriptions.
The major newspapers in Australia have pivoted to the subscription model, through what we might call a metropolitan-national model.
The major papers in Australia were city-based, often with the name of the city or state burned into the masthead brand, like The Sydney Morning Herald or The West Australian. This was a reflection both of Australia’s federal system and of the distance between cities.
The national exception was The Australian. In print, it had low circulation and relied on piggy-backing its printing city by city in the presses of the company’s co-owned local papers. This national focus has proved easiest to translate into a digital offering. According to its 2021 10K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, this has resulted in about 242,000 paid subscribers.
In 2013, The Guardian launched a digital-only, paywall-free, Australian edition as a centre-left counterpoint to The Australian. In 2017, as part of its global approach, it pivoted to a reader/ donor model.
Australia digital subscriptions have been more successful at a national rather than a single city basis. Taking a product range optimised for local cities and turning it into a national offering has been one of the core innovations of Australia’s major two chains.
The solution has been to offer a national news product through a state or city-based portal. So, for example, subscribers in, say, Victoria, buy a subscription for the Herald-Sun, but through that get access to the content of all the company’s papers across the major states. The company has been able to translate this to about 550,000 paid subscriptions across all its city-based tabloids.
In both The Australian and the network of its city-based papers, News Corp imposes a strict (although dynamic) paywall.
Similarly, Nine’s subscribers to either The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age (based in Melbourne) get access to content of both. The Nine group doesn’t release subscription figures, but its total paid subs are estimated to be about 450,000. It operates a more flexible (although still dynamic) paywall of up to 10 stories a month.
New Zealand news media are getting there more slowly. Both major players (Stuff and NZME, the publishers of the New Zealand Herald) were long convinced that the country lacks the population to build sustainability off subscriptions – It’s about 5 million people, so smaller than Singapore. Originally they had hoped to merge the two companies as a solution but it was knocked back by the competition regulator.
In 2019, the New Zealand Herald shifted to a subscriber model using a premium offering that enabled them to still have a broad free offering they could monetize through ads. According to its end of 2021 report, it now has about 78,000 paid digital subscriptions out of total subscriptions and sales of about 180,000.
So let’s recap … what has created the space for this transition
The transition to digital sustainability has been made possible by different forms of government intervention in each country. In Australia, it has come in the form of the mandated “news media bargaining code”.
The result: the two big platforms are required by legislation to reach agreements with publishers for conditions, and payment, for use of their content. Both Google and Meta have agreed to pay the major publishers confidential amounts for use of their material in their news products, Google News and Facebook’s News tab. The competition regulator has estimated that the payments are worth about $200 million in Australian dollars (that’s about $150 million US).
The bulk of this is going to the big two companies and it’s starting to show up in their public accounts as “content licensing” fees. New digital-only media are also receiving payments of varying amounts. Some smaller local publishers are still arguing about payments.
In New Zealand, the government intervention has come directly through news gathering grants through the Public Interest Journalism Fund of about $55 million (NZ) for projects, roles and industry development. And it’s hard to find news media that aren’t benefiting from this fund.
While the pandemic has hurried on subscription rises, there’s increasing evidence that numbers are starting to cap out.
Once you start reaching the potential of subscribers there are two options, to either grow the audience by rethinking what it might be or get a greater share of the wallet by getting more revenues from your existing audience.
News Corp is expanding its potential audience and revenue streams by diversifying its offerings. It’s launched a long-form sports site, Code, modeled on The Athletic, and a games or puzzle site modeled on the New York Times product. Both are ad-free aiming for a great reader/user experience. It also launched a news channel streaming service, Flash, but this seems to be struggling to get out of the hundreds of subscribers.
Nine is attempting to shift people up the subscription chain with enhanced premium offerings, like events or one-to-few offerings. As ever, it’s a challenge to ensure you’re building desired enhancements rather than bolting on feature bloat. Some publishers, including The Guardian and Brazil”s Il Globo have found that more may be less. They’ve deliberately wound back their total content by abandoning otherwise available commodified news. The result has been a perceived higher value of the remaining content and, as a result, users spending more time on site.
Coming out of the pandemic (if that’s what we are!) the sustainability of Australian and New Zealand media appears more certain. Although pulling off the transition has relied on significant government intervention, the future will depend on deepening the relationship with the audience and delivering the journalism they need in a product they are eager to consume, and pay for.