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3 Reasons Digital Newspaper Subsciptions are a Hard Sell (and 3 Potential Fixes)

I’m a huge fan of the podcast Open Source. I support the weekly program with a monthly donation via Patreon, and you should, too. I wear my Open Source t-shirt all the time, and I practically beg people to ask me about it. I want the show to succeed and grow. I believe in it.

I also like The New York Times and The Washington Post. I read both on a near-daily basis. Both annoy me on a daily basis. Yet, at their best, each newspaper produces the kind of impeccable journalism I believe is essential to democracy. In a world where clickbait and “curation” often drown out solid, original reporting, we need big, powerful papers like The Times and The Post.

Yet, I am not a Times subscriber, nor a Post subscriber.

The other day, my wife brought up this fact, and suggested we subscribe to The Times. We agreed it would be a good idea and tabled the discussion for our next family budget meeting.

It would be nice to support The Times, and it would free us from having to use work-arounds to read stories after we hit our monthly limit of free articles (The Times uses the so-called “metered paywall” model). But then later in the day I went to The Post’s website, hit their free article limit, and had to use another workaround. I guess I’ll have to subscribe to The Post, too, I thought.

Perhaps I will subscribe to both. If I do, though, the price will add up.

A monthly “basic” subscription to The New York Times will cost you $15.99 per month after the one-year introductory rate expires. The Washington Post’s basic digital subscription is $10 a month.

Realistically speaking, I’m always going to read visit both papers’ websites. I’m not going to read 99% of what they publish, but they’ll be my trusted sources when I want to read in-depth coverage of a subject, and I’ll go to there to read my favorite columnists.

Yet, subscribing to both would be $26 per month. And if I’m truly subscribing for the sake of democracy, then I also ought to subscribe to the local regional daily, and the local weekly in the town where I live. Realistically, my total monthly bill for a full-scale pro-democracy newspaper package be something like $40.

I love democracy. And I love journalism. But I recoil at the idea of paying that much per month.

In short, I am eager to contribute financialy to a podcast, but reticent to contribute to a particular newspaper. Why? That’s a question I’d like to explore below, because I don’t think I’m alone.

As I see it, newspapers face three key challenges in gaining monthly supporters. I offer them below, along with three potential solutions.

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Three Challenges

  1. Newspapers aren’t personal.
    The main, or at least, the first reason I support Open Source is because I like its host, Christopher Lydon. I like his personality. I like his worldview. I like that he asks questions that are different — sometimes even a bit wacky. If I supported Fresh Air, it would be because I like Terry Gross. If I supported On the Media, it would be because I like Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone. I like those radio personalities personally, and I view my donation to them as being a way to support their work. I may like Erik Wemple (I do!), but I don’t think of a Post subscription as a means by which to support him. I’m not saying my viewpoint is logical or fair or accurate. I’m just saying, subcribing to The Post feels more like I’m supporting Jeff Bezos than Wemple.
  2. Newspaper subscriptions aren’t a donation.
    If we want to compare apples to apples, it’s probably best not to compare donations to individual public radio programs to newspaper subscriptions. Rather, it’s best to compare donations to public radio stations to newspaper subscriptions. I am not a member of my local public radio station, in part because I am within range of three local stations, and I listen to all three at different times. I don’t feel particularly attached to any particular station. However, I have been a public radio station member in the past. And the reason (other than the tote bag) was that I felt a duty to support them. NPR stations position themselves as public resources that are dependent upon tax-deductible charitable donations. When I donate to them, I’m limiting the influence of corporate funding and I’m also eliminating commercials from my programming (if you don’t count sponsor messages as commercials). When I subscribe to a newspaper, part of my subscription cost will be pure profit. Furthermore, a newspaper subscription does nothing to free me from advertisements, something that has monetary value for me.
  3. Newspapers lack exclusivity.
    A newspaper’s core product is news. And news cannot be contained. The New York Times might do a better job than the AP at detailing a story, but generally speaking if I want to find out about a major news event, I can do so with or without the Times. Where newspapers can offer exclusivity is with their columnists, editorial pages, videos, and podcasts. However, opinion articles can be a double-edge sword. I might love an editorial or columnist one day, and hate him the next. And so far neither the Times nor the Post have put out must-watch or must-hear video or audio programming. The times I most wish I had a subscription are when I really want to hear what Margaret Sullivan has to say about a topic, or when I am dying to find out why Twitter is mocking David Brooks on a particular day. But I wouldn’t pay to support Brooks, and I’d rather support Sullivan directly.

Three Solutions

The below ideas aren’t by any stretch a definitive recipe for success, but they do represent what I consider to be low-hanging fruit.

Hitting The Post’s limit.
  1. Create an ad-free option.
    This is a no-brainer. I pay $4 extra each month to get an ad-free version of Hulu, even though that’s a 50% increase in the cost. It’s worth it. If I am going to subscribe to a newspaper, I want the same benefit. Moreover, I’d likely pay a premium and visit more often if a news outlet offered an ad-free experience.
  2. Orient metered paywalls toward high-value content.
    If I want to know the latest sports score, or find out when a Congressional vote is going to happen, there’s no way I’m going to pay for the privilege of reading The Post’s version of the story when I could easily read someone else’s for free. So why not make most national news coverage free to everyone? If your paper has a model where readers get “x” number of articles for free before they are asked to pay, why not exempt national news from the meter? Instead, only count local stories that can’t be found anywhere else, or columnists that can’t be read anywhere else. Make it clear to me when I hit my limit that I’ve already read 10 stories that simply wouldn’t exist without The Post. Such a system would hammer home the importance of newspapers, and also remove the penalty for choosing to read ubiquitous news on the Post’s website.
  3. Partner with each other to develop a ‘monthly pass’ model.
    If I could pay $15 or $20 and get access to The Times,The Post, and a local paper, I would do so today. If I could pay that amount and get a limited amount of exclusive content, say 100 articles across any of the websites, I would sign up for that, too. I realize such models have been tried before and failed, but the idea is well worth another shot. The point is, if I were to subscribe to any paper, it wouldn’t be because I love the paper’s owners or I can’t find anything else to read. It would be because I appreciate newspapers’ role in democracy. It would be easier to sell the idea of helping democracy if my payment weren’t tying me to one particular outlet, but rather creating a way for me to support a robust journalistic infrastructure.

Look, a lot of people nowadays are subscribing to newspapers because they’re worried about the direction of the country. And I’m sure many newspaper executives would chuckle at the premise of this piece, because all they see are rising subscription numbers. He’s trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, they might think.

But I would argue that the market for paying customers is much, much larger than the number of people currently subscribing. I believe the above steps would go a long way toward making newspapers’ online revenue sustainable, even in times when the public isn’t worried about the fate of our republic.