Digital Publishing Reader Revenue
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“We have to work as if print did not exist”: Publisher insights from Bonnier News

Sweden is among the nations most willing to pay for online content.  According to DNR 202130% of Swedes have paid for digital content at least once in their lifetime. At the same time, within the last decade, the revenue of the newspaper industry has been gradually decreasing in the country. Given the hit print and advertising revenues have taken during these years, Swedish publishers have had to find solutions to adjust to a new, digital reality. 

Bonnier News, the largest media house in Sweden, decided in 2015-2016 to make reader revenue its primary source of income by building digital loyalty, developing complex digital paywall solutions, and increasing investments in digital quality. 

The key to Bonnier News’ success has been observing and analyzing readers’ habits, looking at how the audience accesses different content and reacting accordingly while trying to convert readers into subscribers. 

In the words of Editorial Development Director, Martin Jönsson: “We have to work as if print did not exist.” Of the past 25 years, last year was the most financially beneficial for Bonnier News, which allowed it to grow the newsroom budget by 30%. Now, another ambitious goal is set: doubling the reader revenues within the next 3 years. 

The Fix talked to Jönsson about how Bonnier News leverages digital transformation and how it plans to grow in the future. 

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Fix:  When and why did you decide that you had to focus more on reader revenues and turn them into primary sources of income? 

Martin Jönsson: I’ll say that for Dagens Nyhetr [Editor’s note: Sweden’s biggest daily Dagens Nyhetr belongs to the Bonnier Group] which is the leading quality newspaper in Sweden, the decision was made in 2015 due to the development we witnessed on the global ad market. It was clear that much more ad spending went to Google and Facebook. At the same time, we saw great opportunities for reader revenues.  We already had a strong position in reader revenue in the print era. But we realized we had to focus much more on establishing better digital products, smarter paywall solutions, and work much more efficiently with the marketing and the transaction side of the business. Twenty years ago, 80% of our revenue was driven from ads, while today 77% of our revenue at Dagens Nyhetr derives from reader revenue (and digital reader revenue is the most important part of that).  It has been a very rapid journey for the past six-seven years.  During the course of this period, print circulation decreased by 50% but the digital growth was rapid. For the entirety of Bonnier News, a decision to shift the focus onto reader revenues was made three years ago. Our aim now is to double digital reader revenue and earnings in the next three years.

Subscription share of Bonnier News as of June 2021. Courtesy of Bonnier News

TF: That’s a very ambitious goal. Are digital subscriptions the main tool for monetizing readers, or have you also experimented with crowdfunding, membership, or maybe even micropayments? 

MJ: Right now, it’s just subscriptions, but we will definitely look into micropayments and see whether there are opportunities in this regard. As for crowdfunding, Sweden is not a market where there’s a strong tradition of it. It’s not like in many countries where you have donations for journalism. On the other hand, we have a very strong subscription history in Sweden, both for print and digital media. Now, Sweden has one of the highest penetrations in the market for both streaming services, music streaming, video streaming, and news services. All in all, it’s a market where the subscription models are very strong.

TF: Readers’ willingness to pay is very high in Sweden but I would like to ask how you managed to build such a high level of reader loyalty.

MJ:  You mentioned the word loyalty. It has been the most important word for us. What we had to do was to make sure we could optimize the publication and basically, make it a better digital product. What I’ve been saying for the past six years is that we have to work as if print did not exist. We do have a print newspaper but we have to focus on the digital publication and make that our main focus. That was the first step basically to making a product worth paying for. Then the next step was to try to grow the subscriber base by campaigning smartly and introducing free trials and other offers to people. To a large extent, we had to change audiences as we had to go from a rather old print reader subscription base to younger readers, not just based in Stockholm, but in the entire country. Today, we have an audience that is much younger. 

We had to start with the quality in order to build loyalty. Our focus for the subscription business was, for the first year, just to grow. Then we concentrated on looking at retention, getting down churn rates and increasing engagement. Afterwards, we looked at the lifetime value of the subscription. But I would say the core of what we do is to focus on reader loyalty. We do everything we can to strengthen the brand and get people to read us. We look very much into metrics that help us decide whether we are successful in that strategy.

TF: Are commercial and editorial departments separated or actively interacting and cooperating with each other?  

MJ: We are very much integrated and work cross-functionally. It’s the responsibility of the newsroom to grow subscriptions.  We set targets for each department in the newsroom, how many new subscribers they should gain each day, each week, and so on. We tend to give a mandate to the editors to make sure that we publish in a way that we will continue to grow subscribers. Sometimes when I get visitors from abroad, they ask how we manage to focus so much on gaining new subscribers. My answer always is that it’s necessary for us to grow to survive. For that, people need to like our content and stay subscribed. If we don’t achieve that, it’s no use doing what we do. We have tried to build a culture within the newsroom where this is very natural to people. We have also invested a lot in our journalism. Last year, for instance, which was financially our best for 25 years, we grew our newsroom budget by 30%. We keep hiring reporters, we have opened new regional offices in four cities in Sweden over the past few years. We started a new newsroom department focusing on science and climate crisis last year. By investing in growing the newsroom we make it possible for us to keep growing and find new readers. It is obvious to everyone – both readers and the newsroom – that focusing on digital subscriptions has helped us to keep investing, and also to become less dependent on ads. During the pandemic, when ad-dependent newspapers were hit strongly, we were not so hit. Instead, we grew in subscriptions. It was a good period for us. But if we had been still ad-dependent, it would have been very troublesome.

TF: How did the pandemic impact print? What part of your revenues comes from the print now?  How are dynamics in this regard?

MJ: The circulation of print is still decreasing by around 8-9% a year. Ad revenue from print decreased by about 20% during the first pandemic year. It was during last year that it regained some strength. Even though we have large ad revenues, it’s also very costly in terms of production, especially now when the prices of print paper are increasing rapidly. Quality print paper is also hard to find. So, even though print is still important for us, it’s obvious that it’s not what we can base the future on.

Data as of June 2021. Image Courtesy of Bonnier News

TF: What kind of paywalls have you integrated?

MJ: We have a mixed system of paywalls. We have a metered model that is not very important in conversions. We have a premium model with very few articles, perhaps two each day, which are basically designed to drive new conversions. Then we have a dynamic model, which is based on how an article performs for the first three or four hours. We look at different indicators of direct traffic and external traffic and then we put it behind the paywall after three to four hours to make sure that it will convert new readers so that we can get new people into the funnel. First, it will be available for free, so it can be shared widely on social media. But finally, it will be put behind the paywall as well. This represents perhaps 70% of all our conversions. Sometimes 80% of the stories are open, so it’s still available to new readers. But the best-performing articles will be behind a paywall after a few hours.

TF: How do you decide which content should go behind the paywall and which should be available for free? As I know, most of your readers are not paying readers yet, right? 

MJ: We usually have about 2.1 million unique visitors weekly and of those, about 270,000 are paying subscribers. The majority of our audience are not paying readers. We never put general news content behind a paywall. If it’s something that is available everywhere, there’s no need to paywall that. It’s the original journalism, it’s our storytelling. It’s our investigative stories that we put behind a paywall. 

If an article doesn’t perform well, we might open it again to say, okay, it’s better to reach new readers with this. During the pandemic and during, for instance, the elections in Sweden, we often open up the website to new customers for three months to get them more acquainted with the newspaper, and then we will shut down that offer and give them a possibility to take a subscription instead. We try to do many different things in order to first get people really interested in the product and to get used to it and then to convert them into paying customers. 

The most important thing is to have the kind of quality that raises people’s interest, gets them to start reading, and then gradually convert them. Paywalling all the content will just scare them away. Introductory offers, free trials have been proved successful for us. 

TF: And how exactly do you measure traffic? Or how do you get into the minds of the readers? Which tools and metrics do you focus on? 

MJ: We put a lot of effort into measuring and analyzing traffic. Different metrics are used depending on the major strategy of the newsroom of the newspaper. Some of the main metrics are the average reading time of the story, the frequency, how often they return. We also look at the number of active days. Namely, we pay attention to how many days each month users are logged in, in order to make sure that we continue to build that loyalty and that habit in a good way. We are not merely focusing on unique visitors and pageviews – the main metrics we pay attention to are much more quality-based.  It’s not that we are only focusing on unique visitors and page views but the main metrics we pay attention to are much more quality-based. 

We also look into different topics to see how they are performing. If we observe a big interest in a particular topic from our readers, we realize we should do more on that story. We’re analyzing the topics on a day-to-day basis to see what is performing well.  With the change of our audience, different topics have attracted a higher interest. For instance, science, and climate crisis are much more popular now. 

We also try to make sure that we have what I call evergreen content. What actually builds the loyalty is content that is not necessarily related to current news but more knowledge-based, fact-based, deep analysis. We try to make sure that we, in the presentation of the website, have the right mix between the news and the evergreen content. 

TF. How does Bonnier News manage so many news organizations in unity when each has a different agenda and editorial policy? How do you create one common infrastructure for them?

MJ: We make sure that it’s possible to have different strategies and policies. When we talk about infrastructure it is more outside the newsroom. This means it is primarily focusing on having the backend of the business, the ad sales, the technology, the analytics, to work with developing common editorial systems, and so on. We just created a common reader revenue organization, where we have a combination of central and local leadership so that individual newspapers might still have their own organization, but they are also part of a large organization. This enables them to scale best practices, learn from each other, develop the best business models, the best payment solutions, or the best communication funnels with new customers. We try to make the infrastructure shared but the decisions are very much decentralized. Each newspaper has quite a lot of independence in the final doings. But if there is a possibility to share a system or a way of working, we do that. We try to work seamlessly on the backend side of things and to make sure that we use the resources as efficiently as possible. 

TF: I see. Nevertheless, I imagine conflicts of interest can arise and I am curious how Bonnier News tackles them.

MJ: Yes, that happens on a daily basis. For instance, there are conflicts of interest between newsrooms and advertising departments, where the newsroom doesn’t want any bothering ads, and so on. There are conflicts between tech and newsrooms. There have always been those conflicts. But given the international media situation, everyone understands that we have to work very efficiently in order to survive, have a strong and shared structure and to be able to invest in journalism. I think that there is good ground for compromise. What we are saying is that journalism is our main focus. So, if we are going to make it possible to focus on journalism, we have to share the rest, we have to work together on everything else. 

It is a structural change that we are witnessing in news media all over the world. It is hard to be a standalone newspaper, it’s hard to be a small actor. If you are part of a larger organization, you will have better possibilities to grow and develop. But editorial independence is what matters the most. 

TF: One last thing that I wanted to mention: I remember you saying that, in terms of the transformation, you basically started to do everything differently from what you would do in the old age of print. What were these things that you started to change completely?

MJ: One thing was to understand our readers, because, in the old age of print legacy, we didn’t know very much about our readers’ interests. We needed to analyze that better. Another thing was to understand the behavior of our readers, for instance, when they want to read a story, when they have time to read it, when we should publish it, and so on. Print is a very bad way of deciding how to publish stories because it depends on so many other factors in the distribution. 

We had to rethink very much about how to publish, and also the entire planning process. Digital journalism takes more time to plan than print. Communication and teamwork in the newsroom are different in the digital age. More people are involved in producing a story. 

By changing the process, when we start a large story, we do it together – everyone is involved in the story from the beginning. So people understand that this is the process of 10 to 20 people involved in the story instead of one writer. So it’s a huge cultural change that introduces new tools to people including ones on fact-checking, content verification, production of user-generated content and so on. 

We have actually done everything differently in the past six years. It’s an ongoing process to get people to understand that change is the new normal and is nothing to be afraid of. It’s what actually will help us survive.

Teona Sekhniashvili

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