Digital Publishing Reader Revenue Top Stories
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The digital juggernaut, and the eventual, inevitable eclipse of print

When the Financial Times’ digital subscribers surpassed print for the first time, it was an outlier event. 

Within about half a decade, the exception is becoming the norm.

The headlines lately have a sense of inevitability about them:

For The Times and The Sunday Times, digital subscribers overtook print subscribers a bit earlier, in 2018. The Guardian Media Group, owner of the Guardian and Observer titles, joined the ranks around the same time, with digital revenues overtaking print for the first time.

The “digital surpassing print” theme is starting to become a recurring one.

While a number of industries made the pivot to digital fairly quickly, publishing—with a few notable exceptions—remained a holdout for a very long time. 

The pandemic changed all that.

“Altering the course of history”

“Black swan events, such as economic recessions and pandemics, change the trajectory of governments, economies and businesses—altering the course of history,” wrote Hamza Mudassir, Visiting Fellow in Strategy, Cambridge Judge Business School.

According to FIPP President and CEO James Hewes, Covid-19 now “represents the biggest opportunity – and biggest challenge – for our industry in 75 years.” 

The rapid changes that we’re seeing in the way that consumers access our content is accelerating many of the trends that we had been seeing for many years.

James Hewes, President and CEO, FIPP

Surpassing print, by leaps and bounds

It’s not just that digital is surpassing print. For those who are making the transition successfully, it is doing so by leaps and bounds.

Time magazine’s digital revenues in the second quarter surpassed its print revenues “for the first time in our brand’s history,” according to Time President Keith Grossman. Digital revenues grew 58% YoY in Q2 2020, whereas US print subscription revenue increased only by 6% YoY.

New York Times Co.’s digital revenue exceeded that from print for the first time last quarter, a milestone for the 169-year-old newspaper. The Times added a record 669,000 new digital subscribers in Q2, including 493,000 to the core news product, bringing paid digital-only subscriptions to 5.7 million, with just 0.8 million print customers

“Accelerating innovation that was long overdue”

This acceleration, of course, cuts both ways. For those that failed to make the digital transformation, the alternative is decline, or worse.

“Covid-19 is accelerating innovation that was long overdue and likely to happen anyway,” says Amol Rajan, BBC Media Editor. “What’s striking is that, while that business has been in crisis for well over a decade and a half, and in that time been through the global financial crisis and downturn that followed, many titles had still not done enough to prepare for the current emergency.

“The sooner you can make digital pay, the better; and revenue direct from readers will always, always be preferable to that from advertisers. All that was as true in 2005 as it is in 2020. The difference is, for those who failed to adapt in time, it’s now too late.”

The crisis has forced [publishers’] hand to implement a plan that maybe was three years out, to implement it in three days.

Nancy Lane, CEO of the Local Media Association

“Largely a digital future”

“This crisis is accelerating at warp speed trends that already were underway in the local news industry — namely the shifts to digital and a consumer-pay business model,” said Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. 

“Some will not survive this moment, and it pains me to say that. But many others will transform, innovate and triage their ways through this crisis, and those organizations may actually emerge better positioned for what we all know is largely a digital future.”

It seems apparent that COVID has placed us in a time machine, a machine that accelerates whatever was happening before. If your business was in decline, that decline is now accelerated.

Bo Sacks, President of the Precision Media Group

“Technology is changing just about everything”

“We all see how technology is changing just about everything; most industries have embraced the changes, and it is very puzzling why the major media and newsprint industry have lagged so far behind,” wrote Fred Mercaldo, CEO of Geocentric Media.

“This truly is a watershed moment for the NY Times, the newspaper industry, anyone in the content-generating industry, and journalism in general. Journalism has a solid future; their content will simply be displayed online and not in a newspaper in your driveway.”

New York Times CEO Mark Thompson expects the end of the physical newspaper in about 15 years. “I believe the Times will definitely be printed for another 10 years and quite possibly another 15 years — maybe even slightly more than that,” Thompson said. “I would be very surprised if it’s printed in 20 years’ time.”

However long we are in the shadow of the virus one thing is for sure: digital transformation, not just in the media but across all companies, is going to accelerate significantly.

FIPP: Connecting Global Media 

“The new normal”

“Publishers are in the process of inventing the new normal,” says Bo Sacks, President of the Precision Media Group. “The world is moving on and our industry with it. People are increasingly reading magazines, newspapers, and books online. It is a fact.”

Then is print dead? “No, of course not,” he clarifies. “There will always be print magazines, and people who love the printed product. 

“But the majority of readership is moving to digital and we are diligently training them to do so. There will be printed magazines, but they will be expensive and extremely high quality. That is the only formula where print will work in the future.”

“We don’t have a choice”

“I won’t say Covid-19 will be the reason for the take-off of digital transformation, but this could be yet another major accelerant because during this period most people have figured out how to do things they were uncomfortable with,” says Nigel Vaz, Global CEO of Publicis Sapient. 

“Now we don’t have a choice.”

For most news organizations, a printless future is the future,” concludes Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute.

“And it may, in fact, be the only path to viability.”