Digital Publishing Reader Revenue
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The year 2021 in subscriptions and memberships

Reader revenue continued to be the #1 topic for most digital and legacy publishers

In last year’s report, I wrote: The big players got bigger and stronger. The small ones continued to struggle. The first part is very much true for subscriptions and membership in 2021.

But the second got better – even smaller publishers in Europe found recipes to grow reader revenue. We also got some deeper insights thanks to the reports published throughout the year.

Creator economy piqued the interest of tech platforms. This meant many (including Google, Facebook, Twitter and others) set up new tools and platforms for independent creators.

There was some panic in newsrooms, especially in the US, that platforms like Substack would steal all the talent. But at the end of the year we even saw some writers coming back to news outlets.

Newsletters, both free and paid, have been top of mind for many newsroom managers and many big outlets revamped their newsletter offering and strategy.

Paid audio has also had a good year which I documented in the Year 2021 in podcasting.

January 2021

Twitter acquired Revue, the editorial newsletter tool for writers and publishers. To be more competitive, especially towards Substack, Revue’s Pro features became free for all accounts and they lowered the paid newsletter fee to 5%. So far, I have seen most independent paid newsletter writers use Substack, but many free newsletters migrated to Revue. During the year, Twitter integrated more and more Revue features into its service like the option to subscribe to a Revue newsletter directly from the author’s Twitter profile or to subscribe from Tweets.

Subscriptions are considered the most important revenue stream for publishers per Reuters Institute’s annual ‘Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions’ report, ahead of ads + driving digital subscriptions was rated an important or very important revenue focus for 76% of the sample, ahead of both display and native advertising. The reverse was true when the same question was asked in 2018. E-commerce and events were the next most important priorities, with revenue diversification set to be a key theme. Publishers say that, on average, four different revenue streams will be important or very important this year. 

Forbes launched a platform for staff writers and contributors to set up paid newsletters. The initiative entitled ‘Journalist Entrepreneurs’ wants to capitalize on the vast contributor network. Forbes is splitting subscription revenue for the newsletters 50/50 with the writers.

Netflix surpassed 200 million subscribers. 2021 wasn’t that great for the biggest paid video-streaming platform, it ended the year with 214 million subscribers and a single digital year over year.

February 2021

The New York Times testing digital subscription for NYT Kids, built off of its existing print section, was first reported by Axios. Target group: kids ages 8-11, much of the content should feature “how-to” exercises, like how to make a paper airplane according to NASA or how to cope with grief. The product was announced as a standalone iPad app in November and is currently being tested in the U.S. with selected kids and their families. During the pandemic, youth-focused news and standalone products have been on the rise.

March 2021

Project Boomerang by The Wall Street Journal aimed to engage subscribers more deeply with a set of small features. The team had only one goal: Get new and less-engaged members (who visit WSJ fewer than 10 days per month) coming back more often, in effect to come up with little habit-forming features. They tried sending daily e-mail notifications with links to the PDF print edition. A new “Podcasts” link in the navigation drove a 16% increase in podcast plays in its first month. But the biggest success was ‘Listen to this article’ feature that turned out more habit-forming than crosswords and was praised by all age categories.

The Information was another media company to refresh its newsletter offeringSome are free and some are free to start. Newsletters are a proven retention tool and a good funnel for new subscribers.

Disney+ surpassed 100 million subscribersRising quickly as another challenger to Netflix, Disney+ ended the year with 118 million subscribers as the pandemic slowed down its international expansion plans.

April 2021

Bloomberg Media hit 300,000 subscribers. CEO Justin Smith wanted to end the year with 400,000 subscribers, but they managed to have “only” 350,000 in November with Smith citing post-Trump traffic decrease.

FT Strategies published a whitepaper called ‘The Customer Engagement Imperative: Winning loyalty in the digital age’. The authors argue that three initiatives that most strongly correlate with better business performance are customer-centric business models, such as subscriptions and memberships; personalisation — offering customers frequent, highly bespoke content; and a data-informed approach that creates a virtuous cycle, allowing the business to harness insights and continuously respond to changing customer needs.

May 2021

Axel Springer’s journalistic offerings together exceeded the one million digital subscriptions. Axel Springer took its first steps into paid content in 2009 with paid subscription models for the iPhone apps of BILD and WELT as part of its Premium Initiative. In 2012, WELT became one of the first German media brands to launch a digital subscription, WELTplus. BILDplus followed about half a year later and now ranks among the top 10 media brands internationally with the most digital subscribers.

Amazon acquired Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM Studios) for $8.45 billion. With that Amazon has secured for its streaming platform the rights to James Bond, Pink Panther, The Rocky movies, The Handmaid’s Tale TV show and others. It was another sign of how Hollywood has been changing in recent years and tech companies pulled ahead. Vox published a good explainer of the deal.

All tech companies wanted to become creator companiesAxios documented how social media companies began to launch features to help creators make money, including tipping features, grants and creator funds, revenue share programs or even subscriptions. NFT might have been the official word of the year but ‘creator economy’ definitely peaked in 2021 and not just among media folks

AT&T decided to finally spin off WarnerMedia, forming a new media behemoth with Discovery. Though executives weren’t extremely creative with the new company name which ended up being ‘Warner Bros. Discovery’. Discovery CEO David Zaslav will become the CEO of the merged company.

June 2021

During summer, both The New York Times and The Washington Post introduced ‘gift articles’. Existing subscribers became able to share a limited number of unlocked articles to friends and followers. The concept is used by The Financial Times and the Dutch media startup De Correspondent attributed its growth to this feature.

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021 was released and as always revealed data regarding paying for news in many European countries and gave a strong insight into the shift to reader revenue.

Facebook introduced its newsletter platform “Bulletin”The tool aimed at independent writers has strong Substack-like design vibes and to this day I couldn’t find one paid publication on the platform despite the social giant also promoting its features for creators who want to run a paid newsletter.

The Medill Local News Initiative documented how local news outlets are upgrading their apps to boost engagement and loyaltyAron Pilhofer argued on Twitter that apps don’t really build loyalty. Rather, they are a very expensive retention tool for the most loyal readers/ subscribers. Adweek also published a very insightful piece describing how The Washington Post invests more in its app strategy. Their goal is to reduce subscriber churn and prepare for a cookie-less future. Their data suggests subscribers who use the app read more and continue subscribing longer than those who only read The Post online.

Bloomberg leaned into personality journalism with new newslettersAs Axios then explained, the idea was to launch new franchises around talent to help Bloomberg lure subscribers. (I subscribe to one of those newsletters, Power On by Mark Gurman and I must say it’s a good source of technology news).

July 2021

CNN announced the launch of its streaming service CNN+ next year in what it called ‘most important launch for the network since Ted Turner‘ and others called it ‘the newest streaming service doesn’t make sense, but it’s happening nowow’. As part of WarnerMedia and the future Warner Bros. Discovery CNN+ will likely be part of a subscription bundle.

How to get readers in Central and Eastern Europe and the Global South to pay for public service journalism? Reuters Institute published a research paper by Hungarian journalist Peter Erdelyi where he laid out some of the lessons he learned while speaking to 23 news outlets. Erdelyi argues that audience revenue is the best bet for many independent outlets: subscriptions, memberships, crowdfunding drives, and micro-donations to cover the production costs of quality journalism. But in CEE and Global South, there are some special challenges he laid out. 

‘Digital audience revenue strategies in CEE and the Global South’ report. Download here.

It wasn’t just news publications that wanted to make their subscription more worth to potential subscribers. LinkedIn, the Microsoft-owned social network, launched a pilot program called LinkedIn Premium News, which gave LinkedIn Premium members greater access to content published by sites that use Piano’s paywall technology (Gannett, Axel Springer, Le Parisien and others).

The Information launched its first standalone publication which is not covered under its $400 annual subscription fee. It should be one of the many independent publications The Information plans to house.

August 2021

After four years, the Membership Puzzle Project shut down, though the learnings remainThe Membership GuideThe Membership Guide Newsletter CourseResources for coaching.

The New York Times made several newsletters subscribers-only and added some new onesNYT said it was making its subscription even more valuable for subscribers. Later, The Times put the Wirecutter behind a paywall yet another sign of tightening the amount of free content for non-subscribers. 

FT Strategies published useful 5 steps to optimising your pricing. Read here.

September 2021

How news publishers are turning casual, infrequent readers into paying subscribers? The INMA report looks at different options of how to convert these readers into paying subscribers: use trial periods, register their e-mails and build up a data-based profile of the group so you can better understand how to convert them. Here is a useful summary on NiemanLab.

Schibsted News Media has passed one million digital subscribers. Digital subscribers are distributed between Schibsted’s journalistic brands in Norway and Sweden. In addition to investing more in sports and entertainment, among other things, Schibsted has also invested heavily in developing core products in the editorial environment

El País reached 64-thousand subscribers

Technology journalist Casey Newton shared his learnings from a year on Substack. He wrote it was much harder than he thought, only really good content drove new subscriptions, churn was real (3-4%) and the free to paid conversions were closer to 5% than the projected 10%. Also, growing a community on Discord helped a lot. Read more here.

Subscription pricing strategy for publishers: Data, long-term view, lots of tests, and risk-takingAn INMA report looked into how various publishers approach subscription pricing and some of the key steps being subscriber onboarding, newsletters and a mobile app.

Google is working on a newsletter platform powered by Google Drive. Yet another big tech company that decided to join the creator economy. Google named it Museletter, it’s still in beta, invite-only and will offer an option to set up a paid newsletter.

October 2021

FTC issued a major warning to deceptive subscription behaviors. In short, the FTC wants also news outlets to provide online cancellation when it has easy online subscription options.

New Yorker magazine profiled Raya, the paid private social media network. Some of the more fascinating things to me were the strict rules and overall policy that has zero-tolerance towards harmful behavior.

Beehiiv, another Subsctack competitor, has launched. Behind the project is a group of former Morning Brew employees. Beehiiv told Axios they wanted to focus on smaller creators, not just the top 1%.

November 2021

The New York Times reached 1 million international subscriptionsAn important milestone for the paper of record.

Twitter launched its Blue subscription product for users in the U.S. and New ZealandFor $2.99 a month subscribers got access to ad-free articles from more than 300 U.S.-based news sites (integration of Scroll), an undo button, a news-aggregating “Top Stories” feature (integration of Nuzzel), and ad-free articles that will send a portion of revenue back to publishers. 

The Atlantic announced its paid newsletter platform with independent writers. It isn’t hiring them as full-time employees. Rather they will offer some sort of base payment with additional compensation for hitting certain subscriber goals.

Substack had more than 1 million paid subscriptions to publications. Also announced an expansion to the UK.

The Information reached more than 100,000 subscribers and had 225,000 active usersThe Financial Times called its success good news for the media business. 

Press Gazette published a list with fresh data for the top English-language news publishers and publications that have 100,000 digital subscribers or more. The 100k Club ranking found that these news companies had more than 28m paid online subscriptions between them – potentially worth more than $6bn a year in revenues. In the top 10 there are 7 US-based and 3-UK based publications.

December 2021

Digital-only subscriptions have grown by 14.6% to reach 35.8M, according to FIPP’s Global Digital Subscription Snapshot 2021 Q3Here are some highlights.

FT Strategies published a report on the Google News Initiative Subscriptions Lab Europe 2021. It documents the experiments of participating publishers towards building successful reader revenue. The launch of the report was accompanied by an INMA-led town hall event, the recordings and presentations are available for everyone. 

The Solutions Journalism Network published Solutions Journalism Revenue Playbook. The team behind the project promises to show newsrooms how to use solutions journalism to generate new revenue.

What’s New in Publishing published a special insight report: 50 Ways To Make Media Pay. Topics include subscriptions, paywalls, and micropayments; e-commerce and affiliate partnerships; programmatic and native ads; content revenue strategies.

50 Ways To Make Media Pay. Download here.

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.