Business of News: 7 Ways to Make Your Digital Audience Pay for News

Spring 1997. The newspaper I edit launches one of the few online newspapers in the country. But we don’t put any articles on our free website until the print edition of the newspaper has been delivered to our subscribers. We don’t want paid print subscribers to think we are giving away what they are paying for.

Spring 2007. Three days before the story is reported in the mainstream media, my 23-year-old son tells me NFL quarterback Michael Vick is being investigated for his involvement in dog-fighting. “Where did you get this information?” I ask. “From a website I subscribe to.”

Spring 2017. A national study of more than 2,000 adults shows half of them pay for a digital news subscription (often their local newspaper site) and many in the other half are thinking about it. Even young people are using the paid subscription model for news. You can read the study here.

A lot has changed in 20 years.

This study by the Media Insight Project should breathe life and encouragement into many moribund newsrooms where the last 10 years have seemed like a painfully slow death march. As Dr. Frankenstein said, “There’s life in the old cadaver yet.” And as Tom Rosenstiel, executive director at the American Press Institute, said, “This was not a complete shock.” A previous study showed similar findings.

The unique strength that newspapers have is content, especially local content. And the Media Insight Project debunks the myth that that people will not pay for that content. They will if it is what they want. Rosenstiel noted the respondents had to name—they were not prompted—the news source they subscribed to. There is a real connection there.

The Media Insight Project showed people subscribe to news sites because the content on a key topic is in depth and excellent. They want to be informed and they are willing to pay for that information.

Here are seven ways that the project recommends newsrooms ought to be using this study data to capture more of the digital audience.

  1. Excel at covering the major stories in your community. News payers (particularly the higher-income group) really want to be informed about the most important issues in the place where they live. If you are that source, they will invest in you. “You have to be indispensable,” Rosenstiel said.
  2. Do your research. The study says there are many people not paying who look just like the paid subscribers. And a third of them would pay for news. Invest in finding out what would convert them from freeloaders to paying customers.
  3. The kids are all right. Are you? They’re different. You need to engage them frequently to make sure they understand your mission and that you both share the goal of making this community a better place through information. They will pay for news. You just need to show them the value of doing that. Another finding about all subscribers—but especially the younger ones—is that they find out about a news site from a social media site such as Facebook. Once intrigued by consistently good content that their peer group is talking about, they go to the source and become customers.
  4. Remember the butterfly. One of our earliest science lessons in school is the life cycles of the butterfly. Cycles apply to capturing these customers. Many respondents said they started paying for news at a new cycle in their lives: a promotion and pay raise; at the start of a family; upon retirement. If you hit them at the change in life’s station, you become a part of the change. Rosenstiel suggested working with large employers in your area to offer free subscriptions to new employees.
  5. You might make more by charging more. Most people in the survey said they thought the cost of the news subscription was inexpensive. People value goods that cost a little bit. So look at charging a little bit more to get more quality subscribers because…
  6. They believe quality costs. Newspaper owners cannot cut their way to wealth in this new model. Digital-pay customers want quality journalism over cheap aggregators or poorly sourced reporting. You need to add more content to get more subscribers.
  7. Advertising matters. Especially coupons. Few have figured out how to move coupons and discounts into the mobile format, but newspapers are known for coupons. This can be leveraged for our newest customers.

This study is good news, but there is a lot of worthy hard work ahead especially when our financial future lies in digital customers.

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at

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One thought on “Business of News: 7 Ways to Make Your Digital Audience Pay for News

  • July 24, 2017 at 2:20 pm

    Sorry, but the study this piece is based on is highly suspect. If half of adults were actually paying for online news, then there would be no debate at all about whether to switch to paid subscriptions, or how leaky to make your paywalls. Hard paywalls would be the rule, not the exception. If local papers were getting even a quarter or a third of their adult populations paying for digital subscriptions, there would be a rush to abandon print to go online only. That isn’t happening. Another exercise in wishful thinking.


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