Adweek On The Pandemic-Driven Digital Media Subscription Surge

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The notion that newspapers and old-school media outlets are a dying breed might be premature.

Consumers’ thirst for news content about COVID-19 crisis developments — including economic impacts, federal stimulus aid and effects on the presidential election — has substantially accelerated digital subscriptions this year, breathing new life into the industry.

Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the U.S., saw a 31 percent increase in digital subscriptions in the second quarter compared to the same quarter last year, for example. Tribune Publishing, which operates about 10 news outlets including the Chicago Tribune, reported a 293 percent spike in digital subscriptions between February and March. The New York Times found that revenue for digital products exceeded that of print for the first time since it began charging readers for content nine years ago.

The news organization reported that revenues for digital subscriptions increased by nearly 30 percent during Q2 to $146 million compared to the same period in 2019. The number of digital subscriptions reached a record 5.7 million as well, with the addition of 669,000 subscribers from April through June, pushing the company’s total subscriptions to 6.5 million. The New York Times vowed last year to reach 10 million subscriptions by 2025.

Jeff Litvack, CEO of Adweek, a New York-based advertising trade publication, said he’s not surprised by the digital successes of these news operations. Many news organizations have retreated and cut staff as the world has shifted how it gets its news from traditional media companies to Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.

The companies that have survived — and thrived — through the changes in consumer behavior have been those that made investments in journalism. They have done so by hiring staff not only to cover specialized reporting — known in the industry as news beats — but also to provide analysis and a look ahead to what will happen next.

“The big mistake many media companies have made is not investing in journalism,” Litvack told PYMNTS in an interview. “There were very few companies that have invested [in journalism], but those that have are succeeding. If it’s not quality journalism, people won’t buy it.”

Litvack should know. He bulked up the sales staff when he took the helm at Adweek three years ago, but — more importantly — he boosted the editorial team.

“We invested more dollars and continue to invest in editorial and our product, and we will do more next year,” he added.

The key, Litvack said, is not just hiring journalists but also bringing on board reporters who concentrate on specific beats. Adweek hired Ronan Shields, former digital editor at global news organization The Drum, for example.

“He’s an expert in programmatic advertising,” Litvack said. “Since he’s come on board, that vertical part of our site has blown up.”

Litvack declined to provide specific numbers, but he said digital subscriptions at Adweek have grown 40 percent annually over the last three years.

How The Pandemic Boosts Digital Media Subscriptions

The search for the latest data and developments on the pandemic has caused many consumers to seek out trusted brand-name media conglomerates.

“Over the last year, … media — and trusted media — have become really important, and COVID was a deciding factor in that,” Litvack said. “The value of journalists came back around. The importance of journalism was there.”

In its Q3 Global Digital Subscriptions Snapshot report, FIPP revealed that digital subscriptions and paywalls have emerged as the biggest drivers of revenues for many news operations around the world. The survey, which tracked digital subscription growth rates during the pandemic, found that in addition to The New York Times upward trends, business and financial news publisher Dow Jones also experienced print and digital subscriptions increasing to 3.8 million users in Q3, specifically driven by an increase of 28 percent in digital subscriptions.

Quality counts, according to Litvack, who said overall readers are getting more selective about what they will or will not read.

“The more uncertainty there is, the more the reader is looking for answers and insight to understand what’s happening and why,” he said.

This hunger for information represents an opportunity for media companies to capture more subscription revenues. One way companies sought new digital subscribers was to drop their paywalls for greater access to COVID-19 coverage as well as offer free pandemic-related newsletters, with the hope that these features would convince users to pay for content. The report also noted that consumers have become more used to paying for their news and paywalls and digital subscriptions are seen as the future of the news industry.

Paywall Choices

News outlets must determine how or if they will make content freely available as a part of their strategies to rope in subscribers. Some might offer a metered wall, which allows access to a certain number of free articles before readers are asked to subscribe. The goal is to offer some at no charge, in hopes of gaining subscribers once they have sampled the goods. Some popular organizations like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, however, have tighter paywalls and rarely provide free content.

The pressure is on for news organizations to retain subscribers once they have paid. A recent survey by PYMNTS and Recurly found that digital media services subscribers have the highest cancellation risk at 17.5 percent, or 4.3 million users. Offering pause features could help retain subscribers who might otherwise cancel their services, however. Litvack’s philosophy is that companies have their best chance at retention by publishing the highest-quality content and data possible that consumers can trust during the pandemic.

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