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The subscriptions roundabout: Quartz drops paywall while Guardian tests app payments

This week has brought two big changes in the reader revenue space. Quartz is removing its paywall entirely and is refocusing its membership offering on premium emails. On the other end of the spectrum, The Guardian is experimenting with adding a paywall to its news app.

Quartz has announced today that it is dropping its paywall. The ‘lion’s share’ of its coverage will be available to readers for free, although repeat users will be asked to register. The membership programme will continue, however, for the publisher’s premium emails.

The announcement marks a turnaround for Quartz, who have struggled to get their membership numbers high enough to meet expectations. They launched the membership programme in late 2018 under new owners Uzabase, but attracted just 10,000 subscribers in the first year. After announcing a management buyout in November 2020 in a ‘put up or shut up’ moment, they saw a surge of support which took their total membership to around 27,000 by mid-2021. 

Now, the four-year-old membership programme is changing again. This time, it is in response to the habits of their most loyal readers.

“We found that 75% of Quartz members read us primarily through email, so we’ve been putting more of our best stuff directly in their inboxes,” CEO Zach Seward noted on Twitter last year. “That becomes the core experience of Quartz membership…with four premium emails per week”.

Now, the newsletters will be the hero product. Quartz will continue with its stable of free emails, including the Daily Brief, Weekly Obsession and The Memo. The membership will now revolve around exclusive emails like the Quartz Weekend Brief, and The Forecast, which looks at emerging trends and industries. “The overall goal is to engage general readers with our free content and emails, and eventually convert some into memberships,” Seward outlined. 

Seward confirmed to WNIP that the membership pricing was staying the same for the time being. “What we’ve learned is that our members are primarily motivated by supporting Quartz’s journalism and our mission,” he explained, saying that they were looking at models similar to The Guardian and NPR for inspiration. “Our intention is to draw a distinct line between paying for our exclusive content for work or business purposes, which we still offer, and just generally supporting Quartz.”

Finding a footing in the mushy middle

It would be easy to conclude from this news that membership has not worked out for Quartz. The publication – once described by Digiday as “not quite niche enough to be essential to a small group of readers, but not quite big enough to compete at scale” – has fought to try and differentiate itself from the ‘mushy middle’ of generalist business media.

But Seward is firm that introducing a membership has worked out well overall for the business. “The most successful part of our strategy has been converting our loyal email readers to paying members,” he said. 

“The part that hasn’t worked well is when a reader coming from Google hits our paywall, wants to read the article, but has no intent to remain a member. That has not produced enough value for Quartz or our readers to justify the downsides of the paywall in terms of reaching more people with our great journalism.”

Dropping the paywall doesn’t mean that the publisher is returning to the scale game, either. Seward explained that Quartz is intending to grow reader revenue and ad revenue alongside each other, aiming for parity in the long term. Rather, dropping the paywall will help bring more readers into the top of the conversion funnel.

Product-led paywalls

As one paywall is dropped, another rises. The Guardian – one of the most well-known free access but member-supported publishers – is testing a paywall on its news app. “While the Guardian will keep its website open to all, the media group will later this month start to require a fee from a sample of regular news app users as it explores the best pricing approach to put the entire app product behind a paywall,” the FT reported earlier this week.

This isn’t the publisher’s first foray into paid apps. They currently have a version called ‘The Guardian Editions’; a curated selection of daily stories ‘with a beginning and an end’. Editions is only available with a digital subscription to The Guardian. The main Guardian app also has a premium paid tier, unlocking features like Live, Discover, offline and advert-free reading.

The tests will be metered in price according to the user and region, and will probably lead to the two apps being combined in the future as a single paywalled product.

The bet here from The Guardian is that regular app users – a small but loyal group compared to web readers – will be willing to pay to access the journalism in a convenient way. The content will remain free on The Guardian’s website, as part of the publisher’s commitment to free-access journalism. 

Price points will be key here. Will this be closer to the FT Edit’s 99p/month subscription, or will they go straight for the £4.99 or even £9.99 ‘Netflix’ price?

Interestingly, The Guardian’s registration wall tests from mid-2020 were never permanently implemented. “Guardian journalism is free for everyone to read on our website,” Chief Product Officer Caspar Llewellyn Smith wrote at the time. “We have long chosen not to put up a paywall because we believe everyone should have access to fair and factual reporting. This will not change – and it’s especially important in the face of a global pandemic.”

A marriage of mission and product

Why am I presenting these two stories together? Quite simply, although the two publishers have started at opposite ends of the subscription spectrum, they have arrived at the same point. Reader revenue isn’t about what type of paywall, how much content to give away for free, or fancy membership perks.

It is first and foremost the marriage of a good product and a mission that the readers believe in. The Guardian has long been supported voluntarily; by over 1 million digital subscribers and almost half a million one-off contributions in the past year alone. Having the confidence to add a paywall to an app designed for its most loyal users shows that it recognises the added benefits a well-designed product brings. 

Similarly, feedback from Quartz members found that they were primarily motivated by supporting the publisher’s journalism and mission, rather than any particular benefits they got from membership. Dropping the paywall on general content and doubling down on premium newsletters will ensure they can build a relationship with a wider audience before bringing them into an inner circle of membership.