Media Technology
8 mins read

Beyond subscriptions: Where next for paywalled publishers?

If subscriptions falter, paywalls crumble. Publishers will be forced to diversify revenue streams – again. Piet van Niekerk reports.

  • Subscriptions are part of a strong revenue strategy, but not an entire revenue strategy in itself.
  • Publishers will need to move beyond display advertising.
  • Legacy publishers can broaden their reach in a digitally connected world with AI translation.

As it stands, there is no consensus if the subscription model in digital media is merely stalling or on the brink of faltering. 

Our most recent survey, published in January, indicates that the days of “rocket ship growth” from subscription models are over. (Read the report here.)

Mx3 also, in collaboration with our media partner Media Voices, released Media Moments 2023 –  available here. The report’s analysis of the major media trends of the past year illustrated how news fatigue and cost of living pressures slowed the growth of subscriptions. The report found that new subscribers are harder to convert, while existing consumers are cancelling subscriptions. There is increasing competition for subscriber spend, both among publishers and from broader subscription offers, especially in entertainment. 

From a publisher perspective, the 3% growth in subscription volumes reported by the global trade association FIPP in its September (2023) Global Digital Subscriptions Snapshot could point to a stagnating market.

Research by AdvantageCS, a software developer for publishers and membership organisations based in Michigan in the US is more negative. It shows that after “a decade of uninterrupted growth and acceleration during COVID, digital subscriptions have slowed sharply”. 

Yet, not everyone is convinced the growth days are over, and it’s easy to be hoodwinked into believing that the subscription model remains the only future. This is partly because super brands such as The New York Times are so successful at converting readers into subscribers. In November last year, the Times boasted that it had reached 10 million subscribers, edging closer to its goal of 15 million by the end of 2027. The British publication dedicated to journalism, Press Gazette, twice annually features a Press Gazette’s 100k Club, ranking the world’s top paywalled news publishers. The numbers remain impressive.

The sorcery of bundling

Brian Morrissey, founder of The Rebooting podcast (now also on video), adds perspective and hints to some sorcery. The Times, he says, has achieved its success “by morphing its strategy from a paywall for news articles to a multifaceted news and lifestyle bundle whose future growth is more reliant on finding the next Wordle than the work of the Baghdad bureau”.

In October last year, The Rebooting produced research into subscriptions in collaboration with software company BlueConic. The survey of 201 publishers found that only a minority were still “in hyper-growth mode” of over 20%. Most publishers see modest growth in subscription revenue, with the most common growth rate (30% of the sample) growing at less than 10%. For 27%, subscription revenues have remained flat or declined.

Morrissey observed: “The big numbers racked up by The New York Times, and the hope to escape from the boom and bust of ad models, led many publishers to have unrealistic expectations for their subscription programmes, yet again casting them as a white knight. Instead, like everything else in media, subscriptions are hard. Only 38% of publishers in our survey expressed satisfaction with their progress.”

This begs the question: Did publishers hit a subscription peak, or is it a plateau?

It doesn’t matter. In both scenarios, the answer is, again, revenue diversification. 

Lisa MacLeod, a director at FT Strategies, writes in her latest media outlook under the headline 2024 will be a year of tough strategic choices, “if you keep on knocking on the same door, you will get the same answers”. She argues in favour of the diversification of revenue streams once again, and the message is clear: Do not run from one door to the other as publishers did so often in the past, being attracted by one shining solution after the other. What you need is more – and more – doors.

So, which doors can publishers can knock on?

“Too much thinking about subscriptions and advertising was binary in the recent past,” says Morrissey. Subscriptions were viewed as “an unfortunate necessity”, with many subscriptions marketed as a way to escape ads. 

“The Athletic went this path,” explains Morrissey, “and I still see others touting ‘ad free’ as a big benefit. That was always nonsense, even more so today. The Athletic now has ads, and sure, some will grumble in the comments, but it’s hard to believe that a reasonable ad product will cause a massive deterioration of the ad business.”

He references two US upstart publishers founded as recently as 2021 embracing the subscription model: Puck and Punchbowl. Both now sell advertising because they have found that their subscriber base is good leverage in the ad market “since there’s no better proof of a durable, loyal audience than people willing to pay, not to mention the first-party data advantages for large subscription operations”.

There are legacy examples as well, such as The Wall Street Journal. It has always had a paywall and an ad business.

“Subscriptions are part of a strong revenue strategy, but not an entire revenue strategy in itself,” says BlueConic director of sales Patrick Crane. “We see our best customers using the first-party data generated through their subscription efforts to enhance their advertising efforts, and exploring how they can involve advertisers in their subscription efforts.”

International programmatic advertising Google Certified publishing partner waytogrow warns publishers will need to move beyond display advertising. “The era of relying solely on display ads is fading.” Publishers will have no choice but to embrace a variety of alternative ad formats, such as in-text links, sponsored content, interactive ads, and native advertising. This diversification will reduce ad fatigue and open up new revenue channels.

Ask an expert

Jason Clampet co-founded the highly successful, hyper-innovative travel vertical Skift. He will join Mx3 in Barcelona from 12 to 13 March to explain how Skift builds highly successful segment-orientated subscription offerings. Join Mx3 for the opportunity to ask Jason in person about his successful approach to digital content monetisation, focusing intensely on developing and refining their subscription strategy targeting individual and enterprise audience segments. Click here.

Voluntary subscriptions/donations

Asking readers for financial contributions to fund journalism is not new. The UK’s The Guardian introduced its membership scheme with voluntary donations as far back as 2014. It’s one of the simplest forms of reader revenue models. By 2018, this approach yielded more than 1 million subscriptions or donations.

Some institutions take an active stand against paywalls. News Revenue Hub in the US believes “paywalls perpetuate inequity”. The Hub announced in January this year that it has helped raise more than $100 million in contributions and donations from audiences for newsrooms and journalism organisations across North America. 

This has been done through “hands-on support, technology, toolkits and strategic counsel”, says Mary Walter-Brown, who co-founded the Hub in 2016. In an earlier interview with Mx3, Mary noted the Hub believes in a business model that “prioritises informing communities and doesn’t wall off reporting that can improve lives”. The strategy hinges on “building a trusting relationship with readers, encouraging voluntary contributions”. Read the full feature here

This approach has been successfully emulated across the world, with Belgian technology company twipe reporting the recent success of Il Post in Italy. Il Post now has 50,000 subscriptions without implementing a paywall. The strategy relies on – wait for it – “building a trusting relationship with readers, encouraging voluntary subscriptions”. 

Using AI/tech

Twipe highlights how using AI to translate content into English has created a market expansion for the French newspaper Le Monde. The initiative launched in April 2022 now provides a “French and European vision of current events to the English-speaking world”. It has been a successful and strategic market expansion, relying on AI and a small team of journalists. Their method demonstrates the importance of adapting to global audience needs while maintaining the core journalistic values. Le Monde in English targets specific regions and audiences, such as news lovers in the US, where readers are happy to pay for a digital subscription to read news from a different perspective. 

This approach might be particularly relevant for legacy publishers looking to broaden their reach in a digitally connected world.


Despite the less flattering remarks about bundling above, this method of shoring up subscriptions does have merits. The Reuters Institute’s analysis of the New York Times’  bundling efforts interprets it to be  “designed to build habit and affinity as well as drive referrals to news”. 

Effective bundling, says the Institute, moves as many customers as possible to the “all access” bundle, which includes NYT Audio, The Athletic (Sport), Wirecutter (reviews), Cooking and Games. Bundled subscribers then retain and monetise better than news-only subscribers. Over time, all-access subscribers may find it harder to leave, and – best of all – the price can be increased without churn.

“Northern European publishers such as Schibsted, Amedia, Bonnier, and DPG Media are also embracing the bundle, albeit in a slightly different way. Using their market strength, they are combining local and national publications with magazines and paid podcasts into a one-stop-shop offering.”

Expect to see bundling not only refined during 2024 but also move beyond intra-company collaborations. More successful steps could see partnerships between publishers to offer cross-publisher bundles with the potential to offer attractive value – and diverse income. 

  • At Mx3 Barcelona, we speak to three publishers about their revenue strategies, including subscriptions, memberships, advertising, events and more. 
  • Our participants are Rachel Arthur, Founder and Editor of Boom Saloon, who spends her time between the UK and Malaysia; Jean-Paul Reparon, MD of Agri Media in The Netherlands; and Mike Chaffe, who heads up Wolves Summit in Poland. The title of the panel conversation is Mastering monetisation: Strategies for building a thriving independent media business.
  • Join us in Barcelona for these and other on- and off-stage conversations.

Product extensions 

The Reuters Institute also sees potential in product extensions. There is a market, they say, for brands to offer so-called “lite” versions to woo fresh audiences – often younger or those who would not like to pay “the full price”. 

Good examples are the trends started by the Economist’s Espresso, followed by the FT, which offer eight curated articles a day for £4.99 a month (FT Edit). 

“Other lower-cost products in the pipeline (could) include audio first news editions and combined newsletters.” There is also potential for paid-for podcasts built around niches. 

And the list goes on

The list does seem to go on, with waytogrow adding a flutter of spin on some ideas that might seem stale to those who have been in digital publishing for around the time the iPod made its deput. These include affiliate marketing/sponsored content, e-commerce and merchandising, and events and webinars. 

But it gets more complicated even if the doors start to open. You will need to pick and manage you open doors strategically. FT Strategies found in its recent research that publishers with four primary revenue sources (each with 15% of revenue or above) had significantly higher sustainability scores and significantly higher average profit margins. 

Lisa MacLeod warns that the choice of what to focus on for publishers has to be carefully planned and tested, and – very importantly – has to find purchase across organisations, from editorial to product to commercial, for it to be successful.

“We also found that the average profit margin begins to dip beyond 4 main revenue streams, suggesting that doing too many things at once is not good for a company in the long term.

“One of the biggest challenges for publishing houses is to decide what to stop doing – and this is a vital action that can not only help with strategic alignment and focus but also facilitate cost cutting and consolidation. And of course, this is always easier said than done: especially when ego, nostalgia or emotion cloud otherwise good judgement.”