Can subscriptions save newspapers?

Everywhere you look, newspaper business models are in free-fall.  The rapid decline in classified ads – especially recruitment, motors and property – has unhinged the old order where readers got reams of quality journalism at a low price, and organisations had a ready outlet for news releases and relevant advertising.

No quality newspaper is currently profitable; the luckiest are being subsidised by other parts of their parents’ business; the unluckiest are having to make dramatic cost cuts to stay alive.  Regional press are even more dramatically hit, with newsrooms merging, subediting being outsourced and many smaller titles being closed or merged with larger newspapers.  In the US, some newspaper businesses are closing outright, or going 100% online. This is particularly tough on local businesses and communities who are losing a valuable media outlet.  Alan Rusbridger recently stated that he thought the current Guardian presses would be the last; their lifetime is due to expire in 2030, so will that also be the date of the final inky page for the Grauniad?

All newspapers have rushed to put their content online.  Few can dare to charge, and when consumers can get free news from BBC, Google or Yahoo, it’s a difficult sell.  I asked Tim Brooks, MD of the Guardian, if he would ever charge for content, and his answer was an emphatic no. Newspaper websites have huge audiences, but struggle to deliver the ad revenues to meet the high costs of the service.  A few have moved to a subscription route; the FT is the most notable example; they allow users to read 30 articles for free, before starting to charge; this threshold is gradually being moved down to 10 articles…  The FT is the only newspaper that currently is seeing its revenues grow, but they do have a very specific business audience that will pay for useful timely info.

So what could be the answer?  Maybe newspapers should look to magazines, and start to actively develop subscriptions that cover both the print titles and an exclusive online service.  The print product may have to be heavily discounted, but at least it would secure an income stream, and allow newspapers to collect names and addresses for other commercial activity, such as specialist publications, reader offers and relevant services.

What do you think?  I’d be keen to hear your views and comments.

Carolyn Morgan’s consultancy, Penmaen Media, creates practical digital media and marketing strategies for media and non-media businesses