Commentary

Every Publisher Should Celebrate Digital Subscription Growth

The publishing industry has seen plenty of debate about how the subscription economy will evolve, and whether a "winner-take-all" dynamic will favor a handful of big media outlets over local ones.

At the same time, subscription platforms like Substack threaten to atomize parts of the industry, making it easy for readers to pay their favorite writers directly. In this scenario, a publisher is nothing more than a dispensable intermediary with a masthead.

With publishers becoming more adept at boosting reader revenue, particularly with digital paywalls, it was interesting to see the Press Gazette's update of its "100k Club" list of English-language publishers with more than 100,000 digital subscribers. The list isn't exhaustive or scientific in its methodology, but has some interesting tidbits of information.
The biggest surprise is the 28% growth in digital subscriptions for National Geographic from about 142,000 last June to more than 182,000 by the end of 2020. That's impressive growth not seen among the other publications in the list, which range in size from The New York Times at the top with about 6.7 million subscribers to -- at the bottom with 100,000.
Also notable is the Minneapolis Star Tribune, whose website has an audience of more than 7 million monthly visitors, according to its media kit. It has about 102,000 digital subscribers, up more than 20% from a year earlier, though the number has steadied since December amid a change in its strategy, the Press Gazette reported.
While publications like the NYT and The Washington Post may dwarf the Star Tribune, reaching the 100,000 mark is impressive for a paper that last year had paid print circulation of about 262,000, or the fifth-highest in the country, according to a Poynter report. The paper's goal is to reach 150,000 digital subs by 2025.
Alongside its "100k Club" list, the Press Gazette also has an interview with Mark Thompson, who retired from his job as CEO of The New York Times in September and was succeeded by Meredith Kopit Levien. Thompson discusses the early challenges with reworking the paper's revenue strategy, and the skepticism toward paywalls. So far, the bet on reader revenue has paid off handsomely for the paper.

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