Rethinking Local Newspaper Subscription Models For People Who Have Never Paid For News

To save local news publications, readers in local communities will need to show renewed interest and willingness to pay for a newspaper subscription. This seems highly unlikely given that most newspapers still treat subscriptions like they did a decade ago.

By that I mean they have more in common with lawn care businesses than modern media businesses — billing people weekly rather than monthly. Grass typically grows enough after a week that this makes sense for a lawn care business to charge a person every seven days. By contrast, news is highly abundant and clearly doesn’t require payment for anyone that still desires to follow daily happenings — saying nothing of the quality. And yet, newspapers seem to think restricting access to their premium “product” is indeed the best way to show value of its news if offering a discounted weekly price doesn’t work.

Two things…

1) The reality is, a growing number of young professionals and millennials have never signed up or paid for a local newspaper subscription, and…

2) That same group of people have, for at least half a decade, had no reservations paying for monthly subscriptions to Netflix, Spotify, Apple Music, Bark Box, Birchbox, Audible, Hello Fresh, Marvel Unlimited, etc.

Why then are regional newspapers still not offering potential customers a price point similar to other subscription services — a flat fee charged monthly? It’s a good question, and I suspect there’s not really a satisfying explanation. But it’s worth pointing out the flaws in individual local newspaper subscription models to hopefully gain some insight.

Take, for example, my local daily newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, a fine publication with so much potential.

Lets say you’re inspired to finally subscribe to the local news in the heat of the moment after watching Academy Award nominated film The Post. The credits start to roll, you pull out your smartphone and do a quick Google search for “Statesman subscription signup” which surfaces a direct link to the correct page. Price point isn’t actually the driving factor here, but lets set that aside for now.

The subscription page is running a promotion that they’re treating as highly attractive: Digital-only access for $0.99 for the first four weeks. The regular subscription price isn’t listed anywhere on that page. (It’s not listed anywhere easily found on the newspaper’s entire website, either.) You click the “Sign up” button and expect to find this information, but you’re only prompted for your personal info, then to create an account. Step 2 (of three) entails entering in credit card information and offers two long and confusing disclaimer paragraphs about some sort of additional fee for special editions or processing. Then another one about how reoccurring payments at the end of each payment period, which apparently is by the week.

Still no disclosure of how much the regular weekly price is. (First off, let me say that this is specific to the mobile website, as the desktop site is far clearer.) Now, at this point, I suspect most people would probably find this suspicious and bounce. It’s already such a pain to sign up, and it’s probably worse going through another process to cancel after the promotional period ends if the regular price of the subscription is too high. We’ve all done this a least once or twice for something. Even if the promotional price is listed alongside the regular price point, you’d end up losing some people, but not nearly as many.

I’m not really sure why this is such an ordeal. But then again, it probably doesn’t seem like much of an ordeal to those making decisions about how to approach subscriptions at a local paper, either.

A better option would be to aim for a monthly price point, with as few touch points as possible when having someone sign up a new account and pay for a subscription. Charge $4 for the first month, and then figure out how to keep those new subscribers engaged and inspired to continue on for the following month. My guess is that if you’re getting millennials to pay for local newspaper subscriptions at this point, they are doing so out of a sense of duty and an ethical drive to support the community they live in.

In other words, it isn’t about the “value” of a “news product” anymore, so the weekly price promotional messaging is just odd. Plugging in that subscribers get access to sister sites, special daily newsletter digests, e-editions, etc. is probably not swaying today’s potential newspaper customers, either. It might for the generations of yesteryear that still get a physical paper delivered to their home, but those people aren’t going to be around forever.

The takeaway here is three-fold: Treat newspapers like a service not a product, adopt paid subscription models more similar to Netflix ESPECIALLY ON MOBILE, and rethink what is actually making people feel good about paying for local news in regards to advertising (such as comparing the price of a monthly subscription to arbitrary purchases of semi-related items — See example below.)