Commentary

Digital News Subscriptions Grow During COVID-19 Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has caused advertising demand to plummet, though digital subscriptions have jumped in the past month as readers boost news consumption, a study indicates.

Digital subscription volumes accelerated from February 24 to March 23, leading to total circulation growth of 3.3%, according to a study by newspaper industry adviser Mather Economics. The growth partly offset an 0.9% slide in total print volumes that was consistent with prior-year trends.

The start rate of digital subscriptions was 7.4% for the study period, outpacing the 4% rate of readers who stopped subscribing, resulting in a retention rate of about 96%. Print had a slightly higher retention rate of less than 1 percentage point, making the difference almost negligible.

Digital publishers with more than 25,000 subscribers experienced the highest growth in the past month, at 5.8%. Publishers with 2,500 to 10,000 readers saw the slimmest gains at 1.2%, according to Mather's research.

Those bigger digital publishers commanded the highest weekly subscription prices of $2.62 on average — and had the highest digital retention rates at about 96%, the study of about 200 publishers found.

The study is notable considering that many news publishers have removed their paywalls on stories about the coronavirus pandemic, in the spirit of providing a public service as people seek reliable information about the health crisis. That doesn't mean that publishers can monetize the traffic, given that some advertisers have requested their marketing messages not appear near stories about COVID-19.

At the risk of sounding too cynical, the increased digital readership is an opportunity for publishers to tout their vital role in providing news and information to their communities — and to form ties that can last after the crisis subsides.

Consumers are searching for trustworthy information amid the bogus miracle cures and fake news they're seeing online, giving publishers a chance to shine. Publishers' relationships with paying readers form the basis of pitching advertisers on their ability to deliver audiences in a brand-safe environment.

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