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The future of digital publishing

Admin | 13 May 2021 | Read time: 10 minutes
Topics | Paywalls, subscription model, subscription economy

We have long been told that print is dead and digital is the future.  But while the former might not be entirely true, the latter certainly is. 

This is why, more recently, there has been an increase in publications using subscription management software in order to monetise their content in the same way they would if it was offline. 

In fact, it was predicted that 2020 would be the year of subscription-based news. But, of course, no one could have predicted the pandemic, and the effects it would have on all industries, let alone publishing.

So, what was the impact on publications and their subscriptions during 2020 and what does this now mean for the future of digital publishing in a post-pandemic world? 

What did 2020 mean for digital publishing?

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) stated, at the start of 2020, that it had discovered that reader revenue would be a huge income focus for digital leaders.  

Rather than hindering this, the pandemic and subsequent lockdown actually helped them to achieve it.  

Lockdown accelerates the trend of digital over print 

According to the Press Gazette, across both the UK and US collectively, 10 of the largest newspaper groups increased their digital subscriptions by more than one million since the end of 2019. The New York Times alone is responsible for half a million of those subscribers.

In the UK, the New Statesman is a publication that has done particularly well – growing digital subscriptions by more than 75% in 2020 alone. In this article, the publication said: “In 2020 traffic to our website reached its highest level since we introduced a metered paywall, with around 2 million unique visitors a month.”

So why did subscriptions increase so significantly during 2020? Answer: it brought forward the inevitable. The pandemic accelerated what would have been a continuing and steady increase in digital subscriptions. 

Of course, with shops shut and commutes non-existent, print suffered. At the end of March 2020, The Guardian reported that: “national print newspaper sales have fallen by as much as 30% since the start of the government-ordered coronavirus lockdown.” The shift away from physical has been significantly hastened.

A willingness to pay for the news increases digital subscriptions 

While we were at home, unable to buy a print copy of our newspaper or magazine of choice, we turned to digital editions to access the content we were after. We wanted and needed to keep up with news – or find an escape in content that covered alternative topics. 

So, we started seeing those subscriptions that we had perhaps previously avoided, as a worthwhile investment – especially if we would have been happy to pay for the print edition on a daily basis.   

Has 2020 changed what the future of digital publishing looks like?

In short – yes. It increased the number of subscribers far more rapidly than many expected and has given digital publishers a new challenge. News organisations in particular often see a huge spike during a crisis and last year’s COVID-bump has been the biggest and most widespread in recent times. 

They now need to consider how they keep this influx of subscribers while continuing to attract new ones – particularly once their content starts to change and they are no longer covering the pandemic, which some may have come to them for in the first place. 

Due to this, many new subscribers are likely to be different from the usual readers of the publications. What's New in Publishing said it is key that publishers get to know them. In doing this, they can show that the content produced outside of the pandemic is worth keeping their digital subscription for. Subscription software is able to help with this as many can also give you an insight into your readership including what they are reading. 

What do digital publications need to do to keep up?

The predictions for the future of digital publishing – primarily that it will be increasingly monetised - are happening faster than anyone could have expected due to 2020. As life slowly returns to some semblance of normal, digital publishers need to ensure they are doing what they can to not only keep up with, but get ahead of, the competition.

So, how do they do this?

1. Intelligent paywalls

If they don’t already, now is the perfect time for digital publishers to put their content behind a paywall because paying for online content is only going to continue to increase steadily over the coming years. Once you have a paywall provider, there will be different types to choose from. For those worried that readers will go elsewhere, you could start with a soft paywall that only gates premium content and allows readers to access the rest of the site.   

2. Good quality content 

Content that is topical, useful and informative - is imperative. Ensure you are consistently providing what users signed up for in the first place.

3. An ‘audience first’ approach

This means getting to know your readers and giving them what they want. This is relevant for both subscribers and non-subscribers. Find out what they are reading, what content they want from you and most importantly, what brought them to you in the first place. Everything you do from there should be with the user in mind.

4. Think beyond the articles

Although, of course, they are incredibly important, what else can you offer as part of a subscription? What can make you stand out among all the other publishers that are looking for subscribers too? The Telegraph, for example, offer readers phone calls with sports columnists alongside podcasts, newsletters, and Facebook groups. Get creative with your offering.

Don’t just let your articles do the talking. Your content may be of the highest quality but don’t leave it to the reader to find that out for themselves – tell them. Let them know exactly what you have to offer and what your USP is. The reader needs to know what they are getting from a subscription with you and why they should subscribe. Although there isn’t a paywall as such, look at the bottom of any article of The Guardian and you’ll see the publication is incredibly transparent with the reader about why paying for its content helps to support it.   

Don’t get left behind – if you haven’t already monetised your digital content, now is the time to start thinking about it. Before you do, check out our resources, such as the  Publisher's Digital Subscription Toolbox to learn more. 


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