Price? Or Value?
Further, it's not just the number of digital subscribers, of course, that's important, but the price they pay today -- or tomorrow.
The New Yorker recently priced up yet again in 2016, to $99 a year for a renewal. Buyers can opt for digital-only or print-only for $89.99, or pay the $10 extra for both. The majority of new subs take the bundle -- at the same $99 price point. As of the end of last year, The New Yorker reported 107,149 digital subscribers and 953,397 print subscribers. That print number, though, includes those who take the print-digital bundles. In fact, says Conde Nast, the majority of print subscribers pay that little bit extra for "all-access."
The New Yorker experience matches one encouraging learning among those most successful with paywalls: It's been more about value than price among the early digital-only subscribers. They can be priced up, with relatively little direct churn -- if the content creates habit.
And, price is what The New Yorker has done, with a speed I seldom see in the industry.
In the past five years, it has increased its subscription price by 64%. When it priced up last year, it moved to $99 from $69.99. (Introductory subs go for a dollar a week for 12 weeks).
Such pricing, with good results, parallels the newspaper experience of The Boston Globe. The Globe has told me it's gotten little pushback to its major increase to $1 a day from about 60 cents a day.
How many more magazine and news publishers can start restricting digital access and get new reader revenue? Time Inc., Hearst and Conde have each made their forays. They had hoped the 2010 iPad would cement a paid digital magazine reading behavior, but that hope flamed and then largely flickered. Today, it looks like magazine pushes will be quite selective, though many publishers noodle "membership", a paywall-less reader revenue approach that offers payers "premium" content or experiences. In a world of now infinite free content, readers set a high bar, demanding both a high level of excellence and of exclusivity.
If Donald Trump proves one foil -- and one of the best examples of accidental lead generation - the furor over fake news aids reader revenue roll-outs as well.
Says David Remnick, "There is this thing in this world called fake news. It's not new. The technology of its spread is new. Conspiracy theory and disinformation and out and out bullshit were not invented by the internet. And they weren't invented by Russian intelligence or American intelligence or the Trump campaign or politics. All of this has been around for a very long time. It's just been deeply, deeply accelerated by all the factors that we know." That's the negative.
The positive for the news businesses? Readers see value, and want to support, publishers whose work serves as an authentic antidote to phony. "I think there's a reaction to that that is emboldening and encouraging," says Remnick. And, at least at this point, mildly enriching.
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