‘We’re really confident in our differentiation’: Atlantic President Michael Finnegan discusses its long-awaited paywall

On Thursday, The Atlantic formally announced its paywall and three subscription tiers, ranging from $49.99 to $100 per year.

The 162-year-old media company’s digital pivot to paid comes nearly two years after rumors started that The Atlantic would go back in that direction and a year and a half after then-president Bob Cohn declared that a paywall would be erected in early 2018. Yet by the spring of 2019, the paywall had not yet materialized, and there was no firm timetable in place for when one would.

To discuss the journey The Atlantic’s been on, Digiday spoke to Atlantic Media’s president, Michael Finnegan. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

One of the precursors to this was the Masthead, which you’ve rolled up into the premium tier of the Atlantic’s subscriptions. Why get rid of it as a standalone product?
The Masthead was an experiment. We had a reasonably sized audience that had a lot of passion for the Atlantic and the Masthead, but as we thought about our overall subscription offerings, it didn’t make sense to have so many offerings. Being able to take the key things out of the Masthead, like ad-free browsing, gift subscriptions, the more personal reward of supporting ambitious reporting and other features we’ll emphasize, those are still present or are going to be present in the premium membership.

It didn’t make sense to keep all of these things when we’re rolling out this new meter.

The Masthead was styled as a membership, and this is more a subscription. Why frame this new thing as a subscription rather than a membership?
I think the idea behind a membership is much more of a participatory experience, in our mind. At Atlantic Media, we had memberships at some of our other brands — National Journal, for example — and there’s a lot of give and take. When we think about a premium subscription, it’s more about features that people get access to. I think there’s some truth in labeling. I think there are people who call a subscription a membership more as a way to dress it up, as a marketing ploy, and what we wanted to do here was be as transparent as possible. That’s not to say we won’t be getting feedback, and with all our investments are able to have more feedback. We may come up with features in the future to support a membership. But we don’t want to call it one unless we’re offering something that is demonstrably different from a subscription.

One thing that’s interesting is the attempts to build a daily habit. Who leads that effort? Who’s in charge of making sure that happens?
Editorial and product teams have worked well together, but this is sort of a new initiative. With the infrastructure we’ve put into place, we’re able to gather a lot more data to inform the decisions we’re making. The data doesn’t drive the decisions, but it’s going to be more robust as we make decisions about user experience and specific product features.

How’d you come up with the price and the height of the paywall?
Audience interest, audience willingness to pay. That all fed into our decisions on pricing and meter height. For pricing, we did a pretty robust van Westendorp pricing survey. It looked at willingness to pay across 5,000 people. We were able to see various pricing cliffs of where people changed their purchasing decisions. We also looked at a lot of what people paid for various journalism outlets or other services, whether it’s Netflix or Spotify or something else. $49.99 sort of hit a nice sweet spot. It easily leads to value, but it’s accessible to a large enough number of people that we can have a nice financial outcome.

The subscription landscape has gotten a lot more crowded. Are you worried about how much more crowded it is, compared to when you started?
I think audiences and content consumers are becoming more aware that the content they consume has value. I’d love to be the only competition, but I’d much rather be launching into a situation where there’s a better understanding of the value. And when I think about The Atlantic, we’ve got half a million people who pay for our content today. This is not a new thing for us. We’re really confident in our differentiation in this marketplace.

What’s success going to look like one year out?
We’re ambitious. We want to be successful. We want to gain a lot more subscribers. But we also want to take these first couple months to understand and test some of our hypotheses before we give ourselves really hard targets. I might propose that you call us up in six months. But right now we don’t really have anything we’re particularly keen to say, ‘this has to happen.’ Our ownership is thinking about this in the long run. These first six, nine months are about getting a lot of data and thinking about how to improve the products.


More in Media

Can AI analyses about AI content reveal anything about AI and copyright?

Three AI companies share analyses about copyright concerns, websites blocking web crawlers and how much AI text includes protected content.

Research Briefing: Publishers bank on their own first-party data amid Privacy Sandbox concerns

In this week’s Digiday+ Research Briefing, we examine publishers’ reservations about Google’s Privacy Sandbox, how subscriptions aren’t the revenue driver they once were for publishers and how X is once again telling advertisers it’s serious about brand safety, as seen in recent data from Digiday+ Research.

How a revamped Green Media Product hopes to solve ‘problematic placements’

Scope3 unveils GMP+ with Sharethrough as debut partners to extend ‘Green PMPs.’