Making readers pay

People look at their smartphones in Times Square in New York City, U.S., May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo

This forward looking essay by Eduardo Suárez supplements the Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2020 report. See menu for other such essays.


Publishers trying to shift to reader revenue models in 2020 have to realise that only those with a relentless focus on their customers will succeed. It is one thing to say that reader revenue will be the most important income stream going forward, as half of the digital leaders we surveyed do. It is another to, in fact, make reader revenue work, especially for publishers who have offered their online journalism for free for years. The shift will be tough for companies whose digital revenue comes mostly from advertising and for legacy news organisations with a culture evolved for a world that no longer exists.

Three Things to Do Before Launching a Paywall

You should do at least three things before putting your content behind a paywall.

The first one is to integrate your company around the project. This requires involving people from editorial, technology, marketing, and product, and eventually developing connections that allow better collaboration between the newsroom and the business side.

The second is to learn to tell the story of your company: who you are, what your product is, and why it is so important right now. This appeal should be crafted carefully. It must take into account the mission of your organisation as well as its ownership and its history. Few news brands have done this more systematically than The Guardian.1 The messages at the bottom of its articles are long, conversational, and customised by topic and geography. They are designed to answer frequent questions from their readers before asking them to contribute.

The third thing you should do is to invest as much as you can in your digital product. Today audiences are familiar with digital platforms and they won’t accept poor user experience. They’ll expect professional audio and frictionless payments. Posting your print product online just before midnight won’t be enough.

Then you should adjust your value proposition to the needs of your most loyal customers (and others like them). This will not be an easy task because customers are not homogeneous. Their consumption patterns may be all over the map. Data (not gut instinct) should be your guide. You must remember that quality means different things at different moments to different people. Each channel and genre requires a different language and different skills.

What is the Job you Do for your Audience?

As you rethink your value proposition, it may be useful to use Professor Clayton Christensen’s framework and consider which jobs your audience hires you to do.2 A single printed newspaper used to do many of those jobs. The most successful news brands have managed to address them much more efficiently with different products in the digital age.

Some of those jobs are just functional – getting the latest news on a particular topic. Others have social and emotional dimensions. The Economist is a great example. It saves you time by offering brief explainers and telling you what’s important. Reading the magazine, however, also gives you a certain status and a sense of achievement. The package is bigger than the sum of its parts.

In a world dominated by endless news feeds, finite editions are having a comeback. Editions are a great way to foster loyalty among subscribers and recreate the news habits of the past. They come in many flavours – podcasts, niche newsletters, a printed magazine. All of them are finishable and try to keep one of the oldest promises in journalism: being a trusted filter on the world.

The revival of editions is aligned with our research.3 According to figures from the Digital News Report, only 17% of the public access the news more than five times a day. Around 48% are what we call ‘daily briefers’ – people who typically access the news once or a few times a day.

Those readers won’t spend an hour diving into your printed edition. But some may read a morning newsletter or listen to a news podcast during their daily commute. They’ll find explainers even more valuable in a world increasingly complex and unstable. Some may value niche products about topics they care about – The Times Crime Club newsletter has a 70% open rate.

A subscription is not a one-time sale but a long-term proposition. Building a strong relationship with your audience is essential to succeed. News brands such as Tortoise and The New York Times engage their readers in their reporting process. Spanish digital-born outlet eldiario.es has created a button for readers to report typos and factual mistakes.4

Everyone Needs to Find their own Way

Every publisher must find its own reader revenue model. But differences between memberships and subscriptions are starting to blur. The Times has introduced registration as a way to open up a side door in a very hard paywall. Despite its focus on memberships and donations, the Guardian is selling subscriptions to its print products and to its mobile apps.

According to our figures, freemium models and metered paywalls are equally popular among newspapers and magazines across seven different markets.5 Whatever your model, you should get your subscribers to use your product as soon as possible. Sports outlet The Athletic has noticed that people who engage with one of its podcasts during the free seven-day trial period are much more likely to buy an annual subscription to the site.

A shift to reader revenue models will be tough for every publisher and it may not produce results in the short term. According to the Digital News Report, most people are not willing to pay for news, and a wide variety of quality journalism continues to be available for free.

However, publishers should be patient. This race is a marathon, not a sprint. They will succeed if they look carefully at the behaviour of its most loyal customers and build products adapted to their needs. Reader revenue models are full of promise for those who do journalism worth paying for as long as they are willing to change their approach to editorial, marketing, and product.


Eduardo Suárez is Head of Communications at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He is an accomplished senior journalist with experience in Europe and the United States. He started his career at El Mundo, where he worked for 14 years from London, New York, and Brussels. He covered the 2016 US presidential campaign for Univision and has published three books on American politics. He is also the co-founder of El Español and Politibot.

1 https://www.journalism.co.uk/news/five-lessons-from-the-guardian-s-membership-strategy-three-years-on/s2/a730347/

2 https://niemanreports.org/books/be-the-disruptor/

3 https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2019-01/Nielsen_and_Selva_FINAL_0.pdf

4 https://www.eldiario.es/redaccion/errata-contenido-Reportalo-podamos-corregirlo_6_897720233.html

5 http://www.digitalnewsreport.org/publications/2019/pay-models-2019-update/