- 01 Introduction
- 02 Methodology
- 03 Subscription gating strategies
- 04 Even expensive news subscriptions focus on accessible entry points
- 05 Regionally-rooted publications focus on relevant coverage rather than arrays of benefits
- 06 Member-exclusive benefits for professionals focus on research
- 07 Nuanced paywalls can work with – rather than against – advertiser needs
- 08 Simpler subscription offerings widen the pool of prospects for The New York Times
- 09 Philanthropy-soliciting strategies borrow from the subscriptions playbook
- 10 Conclusion - Key Takeaways
This research is based on unique data collected from our proprietary audience of publisher, agency, brand and tech insiders. It’s available to Digiday+ members. More from the series →
This report is the first piece to come out of our Digiday Subscription Index, a research framework that analyzes and ranks a set of publications across digital threshold experience, member benefits and pricing and plans dimensions.
Even before the pandemic, news publishers were thriving in a chaotic post-2016 political climate. Reader interest in current events was surging, with unique visitors to news sites climbing from 8.2 million in 2014 to 13.8 million by 2020, according to Pew Research. But after the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the rubber-necking that characterized the coda of the Trump presidency, pageviews began to fall back to Earth.
With fewer readers to satisfy advertisers – who by the end of the period were already beginning to keep their distance from news publishers for fear of appearing beside brand-unsafe events – and the ebb and flow of advertising revenue made more acute by current recessionary fears, recurring subscription revenue has become more than appealing. It’s become vital. While subscriptions are certainly not a wholly new tactic for premium publishers rooted in print, the challenge of constructing the best digital offering to entice readers to open their wallets is now a near-universal one for many media execs previously unfamiliar with direct reader revenue.
Against that backdrop, the Digiday Subscription Index seeks to examine and measure publishers’ subscription strategies across several different digital touchpoints in order to identify some common approaches and key tactics. Given the struggles currently being experienced by many news publishers, we chose to begin this research series by studying an editorially-selected group of the top news publications in the U.S.
We’ll be expanding the Digiday Subscription Index by assessing common subscription strategies across other cohorts, like entertainment and lifestyle, in subsequent installments.
The Digiday Subscription Index collects data from a list of publishers across a set of dimensions that describe their approaches to subscriptions. The index then uses three main dimensions to ascertain a publisher’s offering and subscription priorities. Dimension scores are used for categorization purposes and do not reflect positive or negative performance, but instead indicate strategies. The dimensions include the following:
- The Digital Threshold Experience examines the layers and sophistication of a publication’s subscription setup and access. Subdimensions include: paywalls/barriers, non-member accessibility, onboarding and customer support.
- Member Benefits measures a publication’s benefits and determines the value offered by the publication after the reader subscribes. Subdimensions include: member exclusives, add-ons/gifts and other perks.
- Pricing and Plans gives a picture of a publication’s pricing structure and plan complexity. Subdimensions include: pricing, plan complexity and payment options.
As our analysis expands, the index will be grouped into cohorts. This report will focus specifically on 11 companies from our first cohort: news.
Digiday found four basic gating strategies that publications use for their subscription products. Listed below is a brief description of the strategies and the publications within the news cohort that use each strategy.
- The premium paywall model requires readers to subscribe to access premium or exclusive content. Non-exclusive content has unfettered access. An important caveat: A publication can determine that all of its content is premium and create a paywall that covers all content as a result.
- Included publications: Insider, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe
- A metered paywall model allows readers to access any and all content, but only up to a certain number of articles. Once the reader exhausts the meter or reaches the threshold of free content, the publication requires the reader to subscribe to access more content or wait a period of time for the number of free articles to reset.
- Included publications: L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal
- The hybrid model combines the premium and metered models. The publication will have both non-exclusive and exclusive content. Non-exclusive content is accessible up to a certain number of pieces and exclusive content is automatically placed behind a paywall and requires a subscription to access.
- Included publications: The New York Times
- Not a traditional subscription model, but prevalent within the news cohort, these publications offer free articles regardless of a reader’s subscription status. “Subscriptions” are marketed as recurring donations or monetary support for independent journalism and sometimes offer other benefits outside of article access, such as free physical gift with purchase or ad-free reading.
- Included publications: USA Today, BuzzFeed, The Guardian, Salon, Vox
Digiday’s analysis of pricing and plans gives us a picture of a publication’s pricing structure and plan complexity. Pricing, the largest component of this dimension, measures publishers’ base annual price for a subscription at the lowest tier, if tiered, in addition to their new-member discount. The other large component of the dimension, plan complexity, notes publications’ subscription tiering system and records the general makeup of each tier.
When it comes to price, non-philanthropically supported publications averaged an annual base price of $237.67. However, that annual price dropped significantly when new-member discounts were applied, with the average discount percentage at 60% and the average discounted price at $82.85.
The pricing structure made sense when taking into account auto-renewal. All publications in the index have auto-renew set as the default option, indicating news publications heavily rely on the new-member discount to attract readers and then auto-renew at higher prices to increase lifetime value. Rather than setting their sights on larger short-term gains, the indexed publications have long-term goals for their subscription revenues. The lower initial price also helps expand the addressable audience for ads and other competing or complementary revenue streams, as it not only brings in direct revenue, but also expands circulation.
Within the price sub-dimension, The Washington Post has the lowest base annual price of indexed publications, excluding philanthropically supported publications, and offered the average new-member discount rate at 60% off the annual base. On the opposite end, The Wall Street Journal has the most expensive annual base price. Despite sitting at different ends of the pricing range, both publications were neck-and-neck in terms of plan complexity. The two showcase best in class examples of creating layers of content access, enticing readers to move through each layer to reach more premium tiers.
The Washington Post’s most premium tier gives readers access to e-books written by its journalists – a benefit not shared by standard tiers. More generally, the publication employs a premium gating strategy that features a total lock-out format, meaning all content on the site is treated as exclusive and sits behind a paywall. This strategy almost necessitates its low base pricing and high new-member discount.
Essentially, paying a low price to get full access to content that would normally be completely gated is a clear, binary decision for a customer to make. This also allows the publication to create a steady revenue stream from subscriptions while still maintaining a large enough audience for ad impressions since the barrier to entry – price – is low for customers. This gives The Washington Post the ability to balance both revenue streams.
The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, uses a metered gating strategy offering a select number of free articles to non-subscribers. After going through those, readers can register to create a free account to gain access to a few more free articles – essentially extending the meter. This pushes the reader further down the subscription funnel without jumping immediately to asking a reader to pay.
This registration strategy offers two solutions: It increases total traffic to help support the publication’s ad revenue and the additional first-party data from free accounts is useful to the publication for honing its ad targeting or providing additional monetizable audience data points.
While The Wall Street Journal has the most expensive base annual pricing, it also has the highest new subscriber promotion discount rate at 89.74%, again allowing the publication to gain more subscribers who will then auto-renew at the higher base price. And of course, expanding circulation with a low entry price will always support the ad business. Additionally, the publication offers different subscription tiers with access to additional member benefits at the higher tier.
The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal both take a tiered, complex approach to their plans, offering a higher volume of benefits at their premium tiers. But alongside their lower entry-level or new-member discount pricing, they both seem to prioritize access to the largest number of potential subscribers by offering affordable, more accessible ways to become a member – at least initially.
Within our larger member benefits dimension, the members-exclusive benefits sub-dimension tracks the content only available to subscribers as a way of measuring value added by the publication to its subscription package. The most common member-exclusive benefits (outside of article content) included an app, online events, podcasts and webinars. The least common were research-focused benefits such as research products (e.g. trends reports) and raw data. This trend could potentially be explained by the more general reader of most news publications preferring more accessible insights, seeking content in an already-distilled format.
In that way, a publication’s array of member-exclusive benefits also reflects its target audience. The L.A. Times, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune are all more regionally focused publications that offer some of the fewest member-exclusive benefits in the news cohort, excluding philanthropically supported publications, while also having some of the most expensive base annual subscription prices, only surpassed by The Wall Street Journal and rivaled by The New York Times.
Of the member-exclusive benefits offered, the benefits usually consist of member-exclusive discounts at affiliated stores and an app accessible only to members. With regionally focused content, fewer member benefits and a higher price point, those publications likely focus on a targeted editorial strategy where the articles they write relate heavily to their regional audiences – enticing a smaller potential audience pool through relevance and utility.
The L.A. Times had the lowest number of member-exclusive benefits in the regional grouping. Instead, it largely focuses on delivering local content. Recently, the publication launched a team called 404 that focuses on creating content on TikTok and Instagram. Samantha Melbourneweaver, The L.A. Times’ assistant managing editor for audience, notes that the goal of the team is to reach people who “don’t subscribe to the [L.A.] Times, don’t know about the [L.A.] Times, that are in L.A. – who are young and people of color and get their news on social media” – aligning with the focus of high-value regionally-rooted content to match its high base annual pricing. While the 404 team primarily focuses on creating digital content unfettered by the paywall, this content does influence and cross over to site coverage at times.
The L.A. Times also offers events specifically geared toward local audiences, a member benefit in line with its editorial sections on food, drink and entertainment in the area, including a recent ranking of the best restaurants and drinks in the area for 2022. All of this content on local events and restaurants also counts toward the metered gating strategy. As with many of the other regional publications, the L.A. Times does prominently highlight these beats on the homepage and in the main navigation bar on its website.
While the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune use a metered gating strategy, The Boston Globe uses a premium gating strategy in the form of a total lock-out paywall. With its premium pricing, the publication also offers more member events and even includes an annual members summit. With high prices, select premium membership benefits and a heavy gating strategy, the publication similarly has to hyper focus on its regional market and create very relevant, useful content in order to drive subscription revenue, as digital ad revenue will likely remain relatively low due to lower traffic from the strict paywall.
Both the L.A. Times and Boston Globe use similar strategies despite having different gating methods. The Chicago Tribune, however, uses a slightly different approach, with a higher base annual price and lower new-member discount rate compared to its competitors. Like the other two publications, the Chicago Tribune is regionally focused. It differs in strategy by offering a high new-member discount rate and, likely, relying on auto-renew at the higher base price. Overall though, with fewer member-exclusive benefits, regional publications focus on local audiences with content geared toward that extended community and an emphasis on saturating a smaller subscription market.
On the opposite end of the member-exclusive benefits spectrum, publications with a higher and more sophisticated number of benefits can use them to target specific use cases, often building their premium tier(s) around professional audiences. This strategy is in contrast to publications with a medium amount of member benefits, which usually focus on a wider audience of more general readers, such as The New York Times.
Based on their set of member-exclusive benefits, both Insider and The Wall Street Journal target professional audiences that need more business information to aid in decision making. Of the two, Insider offers a greater number of unique member-exclusive benefits. Insider also uses a premium gating strategy where the majority of content is accessible to non-subscribers, but it gates premium content that is the most pertinent to its audience.
Within its portfolio of member benefits, Insider uniquely publishes member-exclusive research products, such as trend reports, and offers members-only access to data, such as raw data included in charts. This combination of premium content relevant to subscribers and research-focused benefits positions Insider’s subscription as an expert information resource. Member-exclusive research products were rarely used by other publications, setting Insider’s target subscribers apart from those of other publications in the index.
Insider’s emphasis on research aims for a niche subscriber interested in in-depth news and, as its name suggests, insider information about trends and events affecting a key set of industries. It also sets up Insider to offer industry-focused events featuring said research or data, where the publication can gain revenue through both ticket sales and brand sponsorships and, depending on the event, provide member access.
At the pinnacle of the members-exclusive benefits sub-dimension – at least in terms of the volume of offerings – is The Wall Street Journal. When compared to Insider, The Wall Street Journal goes slightly deeper in the targeting of some of its member-exclusive features by focusing on professionals specifically employed in the finance industry. Again, The Wall Street Journal has the most expensive base annual price, biasing its subscription toward those with means to pay for it, like its finance audience. By adding more member benefits for this rarefied group – like member-exclusive events and exclusive e-books that focus heavily on economics and finance – the publication adds further value to its subscription, helping to justify the high price point.
Of course, a focus on a specific audience is rarely an all-or-nothing strategy. By offering a higher volume of more targeted member benefits exclusively at higher subscription tiers, a publication can still benefit from access to the largest number of potential subscribers by offering lower, more accessible tiers with fewer benefits.
The digital threshold experience dimension measures the comprehensiveness and thoroughness of an existing gating strategy and non-subscriber engagement employed by a publication. Within the dimension, the higher the score, the more thorough and comprehensive the publication’s paywall and pre-subscription customer service tools. A thorough or comprehensive digital threshold does not necessarily mean that content is difficult to access. Instead, it looks at the build of the publication’s content access strategy, such as the number of free articles prior to subscribing or the number of steps in the subscription process.
A publisher with a comprehensive digital threshold has an existing gating strategy in place, a paywall that allows some form of non-member content access, a quick onboarding process and strong customer support during and after onboarding. The dimension comprises the following sub-dimensions:
- Barriers: The depth and thoroughness of gating strategies.
- Non-member access: If and how readers can access content without subscribing.
- Onboarding: How easily and quickly a reader can subscribe and get beyond the paywall.
- Customer support: Which customer support and retention features are available.
Along their subscription journey, readers typically encounter the barrier and non-member access sub-dimensions first. The barrier sub-dimension looks at whether or not the publication has a gating strategy in place along with any messaging, such as CTA’s, within the paywalls. All non-philanthropically supported publications had a fairly standard overlay of some sort that blocked non-members from accessing content accompanied by a call to action. As a result, news publications scored very evenly here.
Publications varied their strategies the most in their approach to non-member access. Those that had a less comprehensive gating strategy immediately blocked readers from accessing content – a total lock-out strategy. This approach, utilized by The Washington Post and Boston Globe, can feel one dimensional since it only utilizes the basic functionality of a paywall. But it may be effective for publications that want to prioritize subscription revenue by emphasizing the premium nature of its entire offering.
On the other side, the L.A. Times employs its paywall more deftly. The publication offers metered access to free articles for non-subscribed readers that resets after seven days – the shortest reset period of all news publications Digiday measured. (All others reset at 30 days.) The shorter reset time helps encourage more readers to return and, therefore, increases site traffic – an important aspect for the L.A. Times due to its reliance on a regional audience. The L.A. Times doesn’t have the deep national audience pool that The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times have to generate more impressions for advertisers.
The L.A. Times was also one of the few publications that offered additional free articles – essentially a meter extension – to users who register for a free account. This “registration wall” tactic gives the publication access to additional first-party data that is collected in the sign-up process, which can then be used to bolster ad-targeting capabilities and serve more relevant content to its user base. In tandem with the previous strategies, the regional publication was also one of two that offered a one-step quick sign-in and account creation, using third-party options like “sign in with Google.”
Along with providing the L.A. Times with additional first-party data, the registration wall approach boosts advertising impressions. Layered over its short reset time, it’s clearly important for the L.A. Times to get as many users in the door as possible, potentially to allow its advertising business to continue to complement and support a somewhat region-locked subscription product.
Onboarding and customer service make up the other half of the digital threshold experience that readers encounter after paywalls. The onboarding sub-dimension mainly looked at the speed at which readers could finish the subscription process based on the number of steps on the subscription page. With all publications having between two and four steps for subscription, a streamlined subscription process is table stakes. Most publications scored evenly for onboarding.
More variation was present in the customer support offerings, which looked at both acquisition and retention. All national publications – The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Insider – had feature frequently asked questions during the subscription process to help customers along the purchase journey. The FAQs were general, typically covering payment methods and cancellations. Interestingly, regional publications did not highlight this feature on the subscription page.
The New York Times scored particularly well in this sub-dimension and stands as a best-in-class example of using customer support as part of a subscription strategy. One point in its favor: The New York Times was the only publication that offered a dedicated support contact for subscribers. This strategy makes sense for The Times when looking at its complete digital threshold strategy, which centers on retention to ensure recurring subscription revenue.
The New York Times has a mid-level annual base price of $221 and a high new-member discount rate of 70.6%, offering a medium amount of member benefits. However, unlike its neighbor in the index, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times offers a single tier that gives access to all content and benefits.
Compared to other indexed publications that used member exclusivity and tiered access strategies, The New York Times has chosen simplicity in its pricing and plans. The publication also offers a meter for free article access that resets every 30 days. Like the L.A. Times, this reset time provides The New York Times with non-subscriber traffic for advertisers every month. Unlike the L.A. Times, The New York Times can allow for a longer period before the reset due to its global appeal and its focus on its subscription product and the large scale it’s achieved – currently 9.17 million subscribers.
In short, it can go “all in” on subscribers in ways other publications cannot. Overall, The New York Times focuses on an easy to understand offering with a thorough digital threshold strategy rooted in retention.
While philanthropic support is not a traditional subscription strategy, Digiday thought it fitting to cover the approach here briefly, as this was a fairly common strategy for reader-direct revenue within our news publisher cohort. Expectedly, within the full index, publications that were philanthropically supported deviated most in strategy across the three dimensions.
Predictably, the philanthropic publications primarily focus on advertising and sponsored content revenue streams, as direct payments from readers are completely optional. Without a mandatory subscription offering, the publications do not require digital thresholds and give access to all readers, increasing site traffic. This strategy increases the opportunity for more traffic to content, which also increases the opportunity for other revenue streams to benefit, like commerce and licensing..
This is not to say, however, that they do not have strategies to encourage readers to contribute to an optional subscription program. BuzzFeed’s subscription page uses a similar strategy to those of some non-philanthropic publications. It prominently highlights two member features on its page: a physical gift with purchase and member-exclusive emails.
Vox takes a similar tactic by offering member-exclusive newsletters. The publication focuses its language on donating to support independent journalism. Vox’s website states that “a gift of any amount helps keep Vox’s unique explanatory journalism free for all, and supports our mission to empower our readers through understanding. All Vox contributors get email updates with insights into how we do our work, the impact of our reporting and opportunities to get involved with our journalism and connect with our journalists.” Vox extensively highlights its mission statement to appeal to readers to donate.
Another common strategy among donation-based publications is ad-free reading. Both USA Today and Salon offer that feature for subscribers. While articles can be accessed without a subscription, the two publications ease the reader experience by removing ads for subscribers. This strategy, similar to those of streaming platforms like Spotify or Hulu, gives an incentive for readers to pay for the service, but also allows the publication to continue to build out its ad revenue stream. USA Today in particular also offers a package with SiriusXM Streaming, similar to how some paid-publishers’ sites offer bundle subscriptions across publications.
All in all, philanthropic publications primarily make money from ads. However, the group offers a good opportunity to look at publishers that draw from other strategies to build out a subscription base. The strategies employed can be seen as strong incentives for readers, since paying to read is optional.
Tiered plans often focus on accessibility through a low base price or high discount rate
- News publications with a high base annual price may compensate with high plan complexity, such as a high new-member discount percentage to attract consumers into auto-renewing at a higher rate long-term.
- High plan complexity but a lower base price means the publication’s strategy is to offer a lot at the highest levels, but prioritize access to the largest number of potential subscribers through lower, more accessible tiers.
Member-exclusive benefits determine the audience – and its scale
- With fewer member-exclusive benefits, regional publications focus on local audiences with content geared toward that group and an emphasis on scaling subscriptions with a geographically-limited pool of prospects.
- With more specialized member benefits, news publications that target specific – often professional – audiences are able to draw those types of readers into subscribing by offering relevant benefits that increase overall product value.
Gating strategies affect revenue streams and diversification
- Total lock-out gating strategies are effective for publications that want to position their total offering as premium, moving content behind paywalls to boost subscription revenue at all costs.
- Metered gating strategies can be expanded to provide publications with additional first-party data through free account registration. The additional traffic can also boost advertising impressions.
Publications with wide appeal need strong customer support – or scale
- Due to a lack of specialized offerings and focus on a wide, often global, audience, more general news publications require strong customer support to retain paying readers to keep subscription counts high – unless they have the scale to swallow subscriber churn.