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“There is not a country on Earth where this model is not working”: How digital subscriptions are helping publishers build a stronger future

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The latest edition of FIPP’s quarterly Global Digital Subscriptions Snapshot (Q3 2020) reflects the “full impact of the crisis in the figures for the first time,” says James Hewes, President and CEO, FIPP. The report indicates that subscriptions have helped many publishers temper the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis. And they continue to show promise as a sustainable source of revenue in future as ad and print revenues are predicted to decline. 

Amid the dark, Covid-19 clouds hanging over the media industry, digital subscriptions have been a real ray of light. As consumers go in search for well-researched stories on the pandemic, they’ve increasingly gravitated toward trusted news sources and have been willing to pay for quality content.

Pierre de Villiers, Journalist 

The report shows global publishers like The New York Times, The Walls Street Journal and The Financial Times leading in terms of subscriber numbers. But it is not just about the big players going from strength-to-strength, for regional and specialist brands have also registered impressive growth. 

“Fundamentals of the business have proven to be really strong”

Tortoise Media, which is focused on slow news saw 110% growth, while sports specialist The Athletic grew by 66.7% to reach 1M subscribers in September. This is remarkable because the pandemic had shutdown sporting activity and The Athletic was anticipating significant losses this year. “It should have been the end for us,” Co-founder Adam Hansmann told CNBC.

“In the end, the fundamentals of the business have proven to be really strong,” he added emphasizing that their reliance on subscription revenue helped them stay afloat through the crisis. 

Other success stories (and new entrants to the list) include The Atlantic which reached 500,000 digital subscriptions, Business Insider (200,000), Mail+ (80,000) and Slate+ (60,000).

Among the big publishers, NYT continues to show stellar performance. It added 669,000 subscribers in the second quarter alone. The publisher also reported that its digital revenue from subscriptions and advertising in Q2 ($185.5M) exceeded that of print ($175.4M) for the first time. It now has 5.7M digital subscribers and is firmly on track to reach its goal of 10M digital subscribers by 2025.

“We’ve proven that it’s possible to create a virtuous circle… in which wholehearted investment in high-quality journalism drives deep audience engagement, which in turn drives revenue growth and further investment capacity,” commented the publisher’s outgoing CEO Mark Thompson.

Dow Jones, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s and Market Watch among others  reported that digital revenues now account for 71% of its total revenue, up from 63% for the same period the previous year. The publisher saw a 28% increase in digital subscriptions which helped it reach 3.8M subscriptions across its print and digital products. 

“Rapidly emerging as the primary revenue driver”

“It’s the content that drives subscriptions,” said Marc Isler, CRO for Swiss media group Tamedia. The publisher is the top performer among publishing groups with 37.5% growth in subscriptions. 

“We have had traffic peaks in mid-March, with users increasing 85% compared to the previous period,” he added. “Users also spend much more time on an article. It’s mainly Corona content, but content that goes more in depth. What makes me happy is that it’s not a completely new audience, which will disappear after Corona. It’s users who were already heavily engaged before, but didn’t convert. So far, they mostly stay with us.”

“Digital subscriptions and paywalls are rapidly emerging as the primary revenue driver for many media businesses,” said Hewes at the report’s launch. “The phenomenon of digital subscriptions and paywalls is global. You will see a wide variety of countries listed in the Snapshot. There is not a country on Earth where this model is not working.”

In a time of great challenge and uncertainty for the whole of the publishing industry, this report should come as a ray of hope. It shows that consumers do recognise the value of our content and that, increasingly, they are prepared to pay for it. Long may that continue.

James Hewes, President and CEO, FIPP

The full report can be download from FIPP:
Global Digital Subscriptions Snapshot (Q3 2020)