Digital Publishing Reader Revenue
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Year 2020 in subscriptions and memberships

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This end-of-the-year series looks back at what happened in 2020 in the worlds of podcasting, subscriptions & memberships, newsletters and social media.

Part two of our series examining the biggest media news of 2020 looks at subscriptions and memberships (the first looked at podcasting). The series aims to identify the biggest trends, to separate the news from the noise. It also gathers the most important studies and reports you can use for your media business.

There was a lot of news moving the journalism world in terms of subscriptions and memberships. The big players got bigger and stronger. The small ones continued to struggle. There were some examples of success in local news and some new initiatives, like Axios Local.

In many ways 2020 was marked by a great “unbundling.” Many high profile journalists left for Substack, an online platform for subscription newsletters that provides publishing, payment, analytics, and design infrastructure.

The pandemic also saw the rise of new products. Several reports came out highlighting the rise of youth-focused news products both print and digital. The products focused on both entertainment and education, providing a helping hand to overwhelmed parents dealing with housebound kids.

Timeline of the most impactful news and reports regarding subscriptions and memberships in 2020



Quote: “Most of the reader revenue of every newspaper with a pay model comes from a small percentage of their readers. These are the ones most attached to the brand and most likely to subscribe. Media executives should look at the behaviour of these readers. Their goal should be to learn what their news habits are, how they structure their news diet, what they’re looking for when they come. News organisations should learn as much as possible about this group and should think of strategies to grow it. Their future depends on this.”





  • Publication of Digital News Report 2020. The good news: Year over year more people pay for journalism globally. The less good news: The report confirms that in many countries the biggest players account for most subscriptions. Moreover, local news generally hasn’t stepped onto the “subscriptions/ memberships train” yet.

Quote: “In the UK and Norway, three-quarters (75%) pay for subscriptions with their own money, around 5% are on a free trial, with the rest paid for by someone else (by work or a gift). The free trials seem to be twice as prevalent in the United States (10%), where competition for a limited pool of subscribers is extremely fierce.

Donations for news are relatively new, though Wikipedia and National Public Radio have generated much of their income this way for many years. Our survey showed a growing array of publications to which people are prepared to give money. In the United States 4% now say they donate money to a news organisation, 3% in Norway, and 1% in the UK. The Guardian has one of the most successful donation models of any major brand, with over a million people having contributed in the last year. (For more results from our detailed pay survey see: How and Why People are Paying for Online News)



  • The New York Times started exploring consumer subscription options for Wirecutter. As Axios reported, The Times wouldn’t be the first company to put this type of content behind a paywall. Consumer Reports, while offering some free content, also offers a $10 monthly digital subscription and a $39 yearly digital subscription. 


  • Membership Puzzle Project released the Membership Guide, its culmination of three years of study and support for membership models. They say it is designed to help media no matter what stage they are at.

Quote: “The Guide is like a little course in membership. It takes you through the steps and tells you how to do each one. It identifies best practices. It warns about common mistakes. It gathers in one place the lessons people learned as they built their membership programs.”

Quote: In the quest to effectively monetise content, better responding to reader preferences was also a key focus for interviewees. This process begins with using website and social media analytics to assess what content draws audiences, determining which of these stories they are willing to pay for and what types of readers are paying, and producing more of that content to appeal to that audience.

Ian Carter, Iliffe’s editorial director, said readers want in-depth long reads and investigative journalism, or the ‘real bread-and-butter stuff that maybe we’ve stopped doing over the years’.

Paul Fisher, audience development manager for Iliffe Media, noted that it is not the ‘big, juicy murder cases’ that have drawn paid readers; it is the more standard local-news fare, such as public court records, planning applications, ‘consumer news‘ (for example, new shops and restaurant openings), and photo galleries showing families enjoying their communities. He said he keeps a daily log of the number of new subscribers gained, how much they’ve paid, and the types of stories they’ve purchased, which he shares with Iliffe editors to decide what they should define as ‘premium’ on their sites. In just four months, Iliffe Media had drawn more than 1,600 digital subscriptions.



  • The FT Strategies published Towards your North Star: Report on the outcomes of the European GNI Subscriptions Lab 2020. This report shares key learnings from the first European GNI Subscriptions Lab, in which eight European publishers participated. It’s split into two parts: Part 1: Building a Subscription-First Company; and Part 2: Optimising the Subscription Lifecycle.
  • French startup Yubo (the biggest social media app you’ve never heard of as TechCrunch put it) closed a Series C funding round of $47.5 million and reported having 40 million users. Yubo stands out among social media as a no-ads and reader revenue focused business. It carries the promise of a healthier social media platform, as long as users decide to back it.


By David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with kind permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its bi-monthly newsletter here.