This end-of-the-year series looks back at what happened in 2020 in the worlds of podcasting, subscriptions & memberships, newsletters and social media.
Part two of our series examining the biggest media news of 2020 looks at subscriptions and memberships (the first looked at podcasting). The series aims to identify the biggest trends, to separate the news from the noise. It also gathers the most important studies and reports you can use for your media business.
There was a lot of news moving the journalism world in terms of subscriptions and memberships. The big players got bigger and stronger. The small ones continued to struggle. There were some examples of success in local news and some new initiatives, like Axios Local.
In many ways 2020 was marked by a great “unbundling.” Many high profile journalists left for Substack, an online platform for subscription newsletters that provides publishing, payment, analytics, and design infrastructure.
The pandemic also saw the rise of new products. Several reports came out highlighting the rise of youth-focused news products both print and digital. The products focused on both entertainment and education, providing a helping hand to overwhelmed parents dealing with housebound kids.
Timeline of the most impactful news and reports regarding subscriptions and memberships in 2020
- The ad-free-news startup Scroll launched. It promised an ad-free reading experience on hundreds of news sites for $5 per month. Sites would get 70% of that money, distributed according to time spent. In December Scroll announced that, after a test bundle with the Business Insider subscription, it would offer a connected option.
- The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published a study by Eduardo Suárez called How to build a good reader revenue model: lessons from Spain and the UK. (IMHO one of the most useful and insightful papers on subscription models and lessons learned for other media publishers.)
Quote: “Most of the reader revenue of every newspaper with a pay model comes from a small percentage of their readers. These are the ones most attached to the brand and most likely to subscribe. Media executives should look at the behaviour of these readers. Their goal should be to learn what their news habits are, how they structure their news diet, what they’re looking for when they come. News organisations should learn as much as possible about this group and should think of strategies to grow it. Their future depends on this.”
- Project Oasis launched with a tagline: A guide to help founders launch sustainable local news businesses. The website promises to be updated in early 2021 with tools, resources, case studies and a “Starter Pack” for aspiring entrepreneurs. It will include step-by-step guidance and checklists on the initial building blocks of starting a news business.
- The New York Times Company acquired Audm, a subscription-based service that produces high-quality performed reads of select magazine articles. Many see this as a play to become the “HBO of Podcasts”. NYT later acquired Serial Productions, the production company behind hit shows like Serial and S-Town. Yet another sign that successful digital-subscription-first publishers see huge value in audio.
- Hard to imagine it was just this year, but Quibi, the infamous streaming service, launched in April (and closed by December). It proved that even billions in investment and super-experienced managers can’t make a service that misunderstands its audience work.
- El País rolled out a metered paywall. Readers can access 10 articles a month for free or pay €10 ($11.46) per month for unlimited access. By September the Spanish publisher had more than 64-thousand subscribers.
- Publication of Digital News Report 2020. The good news: Year over year more people pay for journalism globally. The less good news: The report confirms that in many countries the biggest players account for most subscriptions. Moreover, local news generally hasn’t stepped onto the “subscriptions/ memberships train” yet.
Quote: “In the UK and Norway, three-quarters (75%) pay for subscriptions with their own money, around 5% are on a free trial, with the rest paid for by someone else (by work or a gift). The free trials seem to be twice as prevalent in the United States (10%), where competition for a limited pool of subscribers is extremely fierce.
Donations for news are relatively new, though Wikipedia and National Public Radio have generated much of their income this way for many years. Our survey showed a growing array of publications to which people are prepared to give money. In the United States 4% now say they donate money to a news organisation, 3% in Norway, and 1% in the UK. The Guardian has one of the most successful donation models of any major brand, with over a million people having contributed in the last year. (For more results from our detailed pay survey see: How and Why People are Paying for Online News)“
- Substack announced the Defender program to provide legal help to some authors of paid newsletters. It includes pre-publication review and defence against threats.
- The New York Times started exploring consumer subscription options for Wirecutter. As Axios reported, The Times wouldn’t be the first company to put this type of content behind a paywall. Consumer Reports, while offering some free content, also offers a $10 monthly digital subscription and a $39 yearly digital subscription.
- Membership Puzzle Project released the Membership Guide, its culmination of three years of study and support for membership models. They say it is designed to help media no matter what stage they are at.
Quote: “The Guide is like a little course in membership. It takes you through the steps and tells you how to do each one. It identifies best practices. It warns about common mistakes. It gathers in one place the lessons people learned as they built their membership programs.”
- The Atlantic earned 300-thousand new subscriptions in the first year of its new subscription strategy (offering three new subscription plans and introducing a metered model with five free articles each month). Read also: How The Atlantic amassed over 300,000 paying subscribers in a year, “by bearing down on quality, quality, quality”.
- The Athletic hit 1 million subscribers after surviving the sports shutdown. The subscription-only and venture capital backed website had a promising start. It aims to redefine the sports journalism business. (Although, Grzegorz Piechota makes the case, it will be hard for The Athletic to keep many of the subscribers after extended free trial periods.)
- The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published a study by Dr Joy Jenkins called Publish less, but publish better: pivoting to paid in local news.
Quote: In the quest to effectively monetise content, better responding to reader preferences was also a key focus for interviewees. This process begins with using website and social media analytics to assess what content draws audiences, determining which of these stories they are willing to pay for and what types of readers are paying, and producing more of that content to appeal to that audience.
Ian Carter, Iliffe’s editorial director, said readers want in-depth long reads and investigative journalism, or the ‘real bread-and-butter stuff that maybe we’ve stopped doing over the years’.
Paul Fisher, audience development manager for Iliffe Media, noted that it is not the ‘big, juicy murder cases’ that have drawn paid readers; it is the more standard local-news fare, such as public court records, planning applications, ‘consumer news‘ (for example, new shops and restaurant openings), and photo galleries showing families enjoying their communities. He said he keeps a daily log of the number of new subscribers gained, how much they’ve paid, and the types of stories they’ve purchased, which he shares with Iliffe editors to decide what they should define as ‘premium’ on their sites. In just four months, Iliffe Media had drawn more than 1,600 digital subscriptions.
- Longtime Politico Playbook authors Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman announced leaving Politico at the end of 2020 and most probably starting their own new things independently, marking yet another high profile journalists exiting mainstream media outlets.
- The FT Strategies published Towards your North Star: Report on the outcomes of the European GNI Subscriptions Lab 2020. This report shares key learnings from the first European GNI Subscriptions Lab, in which eight European publishers participated. It’s split into two parts: Part 1: Building a Subscription-First Company; and Part 2: Optimising the Subscription Lifecycle.
- French startup Yubo (the biggest social media app you’ve never heard of as TechCrunch put it) closed a Series C funding round of $47.5 million and reported having 40 million users. Yubo stands out among social media as a no-ads and reader revenue focused business. It carries the promise of a healthier social media platform, as long as users decide to back it.
- FIPP published the fourth and final update of the Global Digital Subscriptions Snapshot for 2020. The chart is led by The New York Times with 6.1 million subscribers, Washington Post follows with 3 million. Once again, the American media giant, Wall Street Journal is third with 2.34 million subscribers.
- News organisations pursuing subscription business models say podcasts – specifically daily news podcasts – increase loyalty and reduce churn, states the The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report called Daily news podcasts: building new habits in the shadow of coronavirus.
- Disney+ reached 86 million subscribers after 13 months from start reaching a five year plan executives planned out for the services in the beginning.
- The Correspondent, the international spin-off startup by the Dutch record-breaking crowdfunder De Correspondent announced it is shutting down said English-language site due to more than a half of the members not renewing the memberships. The Correspondent had about 55-thousand paying members in 2019 but recently claimed just 20-thousand.
By David Tvrdon
This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with kind permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its bi-monthly newsletter here.