Commentary

Publishers Face Another Challenge: 'Subscription Fatigue'

Publishers that have tried to replace declining print and digital ad sales with consumer revenue must also confront people’s unwillingness to pay for online news.

Most consumers said they wouldn’t open their wallets for online news, and the proportion of people who are willing to pay has grown slightly in the past six years, the Reuters Institute said in its annual Digital News Report.

“Subscription fatigue” also may become a bigger problem as consumers tire of being asked to pay for everything from news to streaming services like Netflix and Spotify. When given a choice between paying for news or subscribing to a video streaming service, only 12% of survey respondents said they would pick news.

The Reuters Institute’s findings note the publishing industry is splitting into haves and have-nots, with local newspapers in smaller markets facing the biggest existential threats. The United States has lost 1,800 newspapers in the past 15 years, leaving half of the nation’s counties without a newspaper.

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People who say they are willing to pay for news tend to be better educated and have higher incomes than the broader population. That finding isn’t surprising; it underlines the importance of publishing exclusive news and information whenever possible. As long as readers can find news for free on the internet, they are unlikely to become paying subscribers.

The power of tech giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon to deliver highly targeted audiences to advertisers on a massive scale is partly blamed for publishers' declining ad revenues. But their woes are also partly self-inflicted amid a growing distrust of news media among political conservatives.

Only 23% of Americans who identified as conservative said the media helps them understand the news, compared with 65% of liberals.

U.S. journalists have a high reputation of themselves as society’s watchdogs, especially compared with their audiences. Only 45% of Americans said the news media scrutinize the country’s most powerful people and businesses, while 86% of journalists said the same.

While the Reuters Institute study mostly focuses on news providers, its findings are relevant to all publishers.

Meredith Corp., for example, has long specialized in women’s magazine titles like Better Homes & Gardens that focus on lifestyle content that isn’t time-sensitive.

The company had to decide what to do with the magazines and websites it acquired in the takeover of Time Inc. Meredith determined it need to shed titles that didn’t have a competitive advantage against online rivals.

That meant selling prestigious titles like Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Money to other companies. Unable to find a buyer for Money, Meredith in April turned the personal-finance magazine into a digital-only property.

Since then, Meredith has continued to hone its strategy and cut costs. Last week, the company let go of about 60 employees in its magazine division, with about half of those staff cuts coming from Entertainment Weekly and Traditional Home.

Entertainment Weekly announced last week it was transitioning to a monthly publication, but keeping weekly in the name.

2 comments about "Publishers Face Another Challenge: 'Subscription Fatigue'".
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  1. Richard Reisman from Teleshuttle Corporation, June 14, 2019 at 10:01 a.m.

    The problem is an antiquated print-world subscription model that makes sense to few.

    Instead of the "one size fits few" paywall, publishers should be offering “risk-free” subscriptions that start at zero, and scale gracefully to an unlimited cap. That kind of “pay ramp” is far more win-win than demanding that readers jump the hurdle of an all you can eat “pay wall” that charges for a full meal even when they don’t eat much.

    The future of subscriptions is to make them risk-free to the consumer.  For digital services, the provider risks little except the opportunity to take money in exchange for no value. That will be less and less tolerated.

    To see why and how this more win-win approach to reader revenue can work, and bring in more subscribers, see "Risk-Free" Subscriptions to The Celestial Jukebox? (http://bit.ly/RiskFre)

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 14, 2019 at 10:33 a.m.

    You got it right the first time. Subscription overload, just like anything can go into overload. Laundry detergent, booze, stuff to read and watch and play, shaving supplies - we are getting buried and have no idea what we have. A sunami is coming and all subs will be going. See: History of too much of the same thing.

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