Getting people to pay for news is an ongoing struggle in the industry. Adopting subscription-based models is something publishers have either tried and found difficult, or not tried at all because it would likely lead to a loss in readership.
But there are some print legacy organisations that have been successful in their use of paywalls. Many point to the success of The New York Times, which recently passed the milestone for 1 million digital readers, four and half years after introducing a metered paywall.
On the final panel of the INMA European News Media conference today, three news organisations shared what they learned from using a subscription-based business model in Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom.
The Toronto Star, Canada's largest online news site, adopted a metered paywall in the summer of 2013.
Readers had access to 10 free article per month on the website, and this paid-for digital access excluded mobile and tablet apps. "For us, apps were only a fraction of the overall traffic", explained Sandy Macleod, The Star's chief operating officer for print.
"At the time, we felt the metered paywall was our best outlook into this space," Macleod said, "but we very quickly learned that in our market, we are not The New York Times."
The idea behind the strategy was to target current print subscribers of the paper, but also to capitalise on "heavy" users of the website – getting them to pay within six months – and "reintroduce" former subscribers to the outlet's journalism.
"But within months of launching, we hit our ceiling – it was virtually impossible to move past that certain number of users and digital traffic dropped more than expected," Macleod said.
The Star dropped its paywall in April 2015, when a "game changer" idea came along – the subscription model's failure gave the outlet the chance to focus on launching a tablet app.
On September 15, the publisher introduced The Star Touch, a free daily edition, which updates once a day and features interactive content like photo galleries, maps, videos, as well as advertising.
Macleod said developing the app has "transformed the newsroom" and he expects it will gather an audience that mirrors that of the print publication.
Axel Springer’s Bild operates on a freemium model in Germany. It reaches 38.2 million people across platforms including print, and around 18.5 million online readers monthly.
Its paid content scheme, Bild+, accounts for a big part of this success. In 2013, the majority of the outlet’s revenue came from advertising and selling the mobile and tablet app through iTunes.
“But in the digital world, we knew we can’t make money just from advertising,” said Tobias Henning, general manager premium at Bild, “and we wanted to combine it with sales revenue, rather than substitute it.”
Bild didn’t opt for a ‘hard’ or a metered paywall – the freemium model means 80 per cent of Bild’s content is available for free on the website, while 20 per cent is paid-for.
Henning said this approach gives them control in establishing how many pieces readers should pay for, and which ones.
“Our website is full of pictures and short text, so our readers wouldn’t be able to understand when their meter is ‘full’."
Bild+ offers readers three subscription options: the most successful one is BILDplus Digital, at €4.99 per month, followed by BILDplus Premium at €9.99 per month and BILDplus Komplett, a €14.99 per month bundle that also includes the print newspaper.
Two and a half years later, Bild has more than 292,000 subscribers – the largest part of the revenue still comes from monetising the iOS and Android apps, followed by subscriptions purchases on the website and partnerships with third parties, such as telephone companies.
The Times and The Sunday Times
Alan Hunter, digital editor of The Times and The Sunday Times, titles which operate a hard paywall, said this notion “often gives people the idea that audiences are left out”.
“Quality costs and advertising alone will not pay for it, in the same way that it didn’t pay for it when we were just a print product.”
The outlets used to offer different subscription packages, tailored to readers’ preferences.
But, after consulting with the audience, the team decided to simplify this and give people access to news online for £6 per week.
“Our readers have told us how often they switch between devices on a daily basis and that they'd like to pay just one price for everything – ‘you choose the content, we choose where we read it’,” Hunter said.
Back in 2009, the two news outlets made headlines after reporting a combined loss of £17 million.
But introducing the paywall in 2010 has been a profitable move, and out of the 400,000 print and digital subscribers, 170,000 are now digital-only.
“If you want to be paid for, you have to be distinctive”, said Hunter.
“When we look at which articles convince people to pay, we can’t pinpoint it – we think it’s the overall experience of The Times and Sunday Times.”
The team constantly re-evaluates other business models but they always raise questions, such as: “can we get the audience required to match our current revenues if we go free”, or “will anyone pay for a metered paywall”.
However, the biggest challenge from an editorial perspective remains reaching new audiences.
“What I always tell our journalists is that if a story is good enough, it will always be part of the conversation,” Hunter said.
Free daily newsletter
- How to get your next podcast commissioned
- Audience engagement, podcasts, and private messaging: boost your social media strategy
- What do millennials and Gen Z want from the news? Convenience and hard-hitting content
- Weekly journalism news update: virtual reality, WhatsApp audio briefings and TikTok
- How The Times attracts and retains digital subscribers