Digital Publishing Reader Revenue Top Stories
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“Subscriptions and other diverse revenue sources only set to grow”: How publishers are carving out opportunities from a crisis

Quartz has nearly doubled the number of its subscribers in less than a year. The publisher had 11,000 paying members in November 2019 and recently reached 21,000, The Drum reports

It’s a notable achievement considering that Quartz has been struggling with finding a sustainable revenue stream for the last few years. Initially it was free to readers and funded by ad revenue. In late 2018, the publisher launched paid memberships for $14.99 a month, or $99 a year, in order to diversify its revenue streams. Six months later it placed all its content behind a metered paywall. 

“Doubling down on our core strengths”

The membership strategy did not perform as expected. The publisher expected to reach 20,000 subscribers in 2019 but could not. However, the pandemic turned things around. Quartz pivoted its content to serve readers looking for coronavirus related information leading to a spurt in paid members.

Katie Weber, President of Quartz, said that focusing on its “Need to Know” COVID-19 email newsletter helped attract subscribers, as well as reporting on topics such as the office, mental health and commuting. 

The publisher also expanded its membership offering, with access to all digital content, member-only newsletters, deep dives, digital events and presentations.

“We are doubling down on our core strengths – providing a global perspective, actionable ideas, and distinctive coverage within obsessions (dives deep into a single topic),” said Weber. “We are learning more every month about what’s working, and investing more in those things.”

“53% of publishers report revenue growth”

This recent growth in reader revenue has been experienced by publishers across the industry. 53% of publishers reported revenue growth in Q1 2020, helped by strong growth in subscriptions, according to the latest quarterly Digital Publishers Revenue Index (DPRI) from the Association of Online Publishers (AOP) and Deloitte. 

After a turbulent 2019, the latest DPRI data demonstrates the challenges to revenue in early 2020 wasn’t as severe as had been expected. While COVID-19 disruption will inevitably impact revenues as we move through the year, the overall decline in Q1 2020 was relatively slight with multiple areas of growth.

Richard Reeves, Managing Director, AOP

What’s even more encouraging is that while the surge in new subscriptions peaked in March, it continues to be higher than pre-pandemic levels. This has led more publishers to try out subscriptions. 

The South China Morning Post which had moved away from the subscription model in 2016, announced in July that it will be rolling out new digital subscription plans from August. 

“Comprehensive reporting is costly and the century-old advertising model is no longer enough to sustain high-quality news,” the publisher’s Editor-in-Chief Tammy Tam said in a statement. 

“SCMP’s commitment to journalism means that this model must evolve and our business must align with our greatest accountability: to serve our readers with uncompromising truth. So, we are asking for your support to help safeguard the journalism that the world deserves and the future of the South China Morning Post.”

“Revenue from subscriptions can be higher than those from advertising revenues”

SCMP’s move confirms that subscription is the business model to build upon, no matter how tough that path may seem initially, Prantik Mazumdar, Managing Partner at Happy Marketer told The Drum. 

“What helps is that global publishers like The New York Times (NYT) and The Financial Times have undergone these transformations over the last five odd years and are inspiring beacons for the industry,” he added.

They have proven that digital revenue can be higher than traditional print revenues and that revenue from subscriptions can be higher than those from advertising revenues. That is only if the publisher finds the right niche, focuses on product development beyond just news and invests in the first party-driven marketing technology. 

Prantik Mazumdar, Managing Partner at Happy Marketer

“Set to become even more vital”

Many publishers have been concerned that the coronavirus driven spike in membership might not last. But reports suggest that subscribers have held on despite growing fatigue over coronavirus related news. People getting used to paying for news seems to be a positive fallout of the pandemic. 

“Subscriptions in particular were already playing an increasingly essential role in the monetisation of online content and look set to become even more vital as publishers adapt to the new landscape,” said Richard. 

“Ten years ago, display advertising made up 58% of digital publisher revenue and subscriptions only 7%. Subscriptions now account for 22% of total revenue; with display advertising having shrunk to 42%.” 

As income from display continues to decline, the shift towards subscriptions and other diverse revenue sources is only set to grow, accelerated in part by the pandemic. The publishers that adapt to this change will be the ones that have the most to gain when the storm passes.

Richard Reeves, Managing Director, AOP