Should you offer your print newspaper subscription for free?

by Jason Preston on July 3, 2008

Newspapers today generally offer two products: they offer an online product and they offer a print product. These products are different in some very basic but inconspicuous ways, which is why a lot of papers are still trying to shoehorn their print product into their digital offering; they haven’t figured out how important those little changes are.

The print product is becoming less and less viable. The online product is growing at ridiculous rates, even during the current economic downturn.

Newspapers need to start accepting the fact that their online product is their primary service. There’s a reason that 50% of your web traffic comes from Google: search is a web dashboard, your home page is a print dashboard.

So what do you do? You start treating your print product as a marketing tool for your online product.

I mentioned before that I think there might be a future for free print editions. That works if you re-imagine the form and purpose of your current print daily.

Right now newspapers make about 20% of their revenue from subscription dues. That’s a hefty chunk of money. But print advertising is highly lucrative in the first place, and sending out 300,000+ papers designed to drive people to your web site is going to give a healthy boost in your web traffic (and therefore your web ad revenue).

Here are some ideas for making that move:

  1. Offer your subscription for free (charge $0.25 for individual copy sales), because free is completely different from any amount of money. It gets rid of the mental transaction cost, and your subscription rate will soar.
  2. Increase your print ad space to make up for lost subscription revenue. Reduce the number of pages you print and reduce the number of hard or breaking news stories – people will go online for up-to-date information (and direct them to your site for this).
  3. Offer a premium subscription for people who are annoyed with the ads. Printing technology has progressed like all other technology, and it’s no longer as big of a hassle to print multiple versions of the same product. Charge $15 a month for reduced ads, $30 a month for no ads.
  4. Print quality comments that were left on your web site. Devote a section of the paper product to quality forum posts and input. Encourage print readers to log in and contribute.
  5. Start thinking of your print product as a marketing expense. Underwrite it as much as you can with ads and with premium subscribers, but treat it as an expense like any other form of advertising, and look to your online property for real revenue.
  6. Redesign your site so that the emphasis is on web-native presentation. Make search a prominent feature. Cross-index your posts; just because an article is in the business section doesn’t mean it shouldn’t also show up when someone clicks “travel.”

I don’t know enough about the specific numbers in the newspaper industry right now to tell you if that’s a working system for profit right now. But I can tell you that going forward, newspapers need to focus on the product that’s growing, not the product that’s dying.

Little things like search, links, and comments are going to change the way everything is written and presented. More articles will be shorter, chunked, and cross-linked and fewer will be presented in linear, 5,000 word formats. A reporter will do three shorter pieces in a day instead of one longer one.

Does a free print subscription make sense for all papers? No, probably not. I wouldn’t try it if I were the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal. These are papers for niche and affluent audiences already, and the content they have carries the premium of expertise.

But if you’re a paper like the Chicago Sun-Times or the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, free print subscriptions might be worth exploring.

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1 Ben A 07.03.08 at 3:24 pm

Maybe I’m just daft, but why in the world would individual copies be sold for 25¢ a pop when subscriptions (read: individual copies delivered daily to the reader’s door) be free?

I understand that subscriptions are usually cheaper per copy than newsstand sales, but that’s because subscriptions usually guarantee more revenue in the long-term than sporadic newsstand sales. Once that revenue equals zero, though, what’s the point of still charging at the newsstand? Why wouldn’t everyone just subscribe?

Why not offer reduced-rate subscriptions (paying for the convenience of having it delivered) and free newsstand copies? If it’s supposed to be a marketing instrument, doesn’t it make more sense to offer it to people walking through a public place who might not be as familiar with the product?

2 Jason Preston 07.03.08 at 3:47 pm

The pricing is meant to encourage the behavior you want, in this case, you want subscribers far more than you want random news stand purchases. I’ve written about it in online terms and I think it applies in print, too: A subscriber is more valuable to a newspaper than just a reader.

“I have 600,000 subscribers” is a much better starting point when selling ads than “I print 600,000 copies.” The second statement begs the question: “how many of them are read?”

So what a newspaper wants is a huge subscriber base, because you can charge a higher premium on ads if you have subscribers who are engaged with your brand than you can for random pickups at news-stands.

You might be able to accomplish the same by having a $4/month subscription and a $0.25 news stand copy, but to really blow your subscription numbers to the stratosphere, you need to go free.

The idea is that the print edition will probably *cost you money,* but that it will be made up for by your web offerings.

The theory is not fully baked, of course, and I don’t have access to the real numbers from any newspaper, so you could be right.

3 Ben A 07.03.08 at 8:49 pm

In all fairness, I also don’t know enough about the numbers to make any well supported claims, but it seems like if a paper just gives away subscriptions, the circulation will not just be inflated, but artificially inflated.

If a reader is willing to pay $15 a month for a subscription, I’d guess there’s a pretty high likelihood that he or she is actually reading the paper (if not, why drop the money on a subscription?). But if a subscriber doesn’t have to pay a dime, it seems to me that there’d be a whole bunch of them who might never read past the front page. Advertisers may find the high circulation attractive, but how could they not question the value of those impressions?

(To make my point clearer, consider this ridiculous example: Suppose a magazine charges $1,000 per year for a subscription. Sure, the readership would be teeny, but any subscriber paying that much would be darn sure to read every issue. To an advertiser, each of those subscribers would be worth quite a bit, as it’s almost certain that he or she would actually see an ad.)

It seems to me like you’re trying to do too many things with the print edition. You want it to be a marketing tool for the online product and a metric for advertising prices? Let’s go back to what you said in your last comment:

“The pricing is meant to encourage the behavior you want, in this case, you want subscribers far more than you want random news stand purchases.”

Do you? I agree that if the primary goal is making advertising revenue from the print product, subscriptions are the way to go. But I understood the thrust of your original post to be that driving new traffic to your online product is the desired behavior. If that’s the case, and if the print product is intended to market the online newspaper, then encouraging non-readers to pick up the paper for the first time seems way more desirable to me.

4 Jason Preston 07.03.08 at 9:11 pm

You’ve got two points going there. I’m going to see if I can deal with both of them.

The point of making the subscription free primarily is to use the print edition as a marketing tool for the online product. A secondary effect is that you’ll have a larger circulation and can therefore charge more for your ads.

And for the record, I’m talking about newspapers, I would not recommend this model for magazines.

The price of an issue is a surprisingly poor metric for the efficacy of an ad inside the paper. To go with your example, there’s no guarantee that the couple hundred people paying $1000 an issue will pay attention to my ad even if they do read every issue.

If I buy an ad that goes out in 600,000 papers and the yield is 30%, that means I reached 180,000 people. If I advertise in a periodical with 300 subscribers and I get an unrealistic 100% yield, only 300 people see it. As an advertiser in print, scale is what I’m after, and 180,000 eyeballs are worth more than 300 except in certain highly targeted cases.

So while you’re right that there’s no guarantee that non-paying subscribers will read the paper cover to cover, I think it’s likely that a combination of extra subscribers and increased ad pages will have a net positive effect on print ad revenue, which is the secondary goal.

The primary goal is to advertise the web site. And this seems like a no-brainer to me. The more people who see your brand (you’re certainly aware that you’re receiving the paper, even if you’re not reading it), the better. Treat it like a direct mail campaign.

Companies send hundreds of thousands of unsolicited flyers through the mail all the time, because it actually works. The newspaper is in the unique position to use their OLD product (the print paper) to have a massively-scaled, almost completely subsidized, totally opt-in and ongoing direct mail ad campaign for their NEW product: the online news destination.

In summary:

So you’re absolutely right: the subscription count will be artificially inflated – that is the point. An artificially high subscription count means you’re intentionally trying to put your marketing materials (the print product) into the hands of as many people as possible.

So by making the subscription free you are encouraging non-readers to pick it up for the first time (at my doorstep for free every morning? why not?) while also getting to establish a relationship with them, an opportunity that is markedly absent in the news stand transaction.

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