What is a subscription?

by Jason Preston on May 14, 2008

I‘ve tossed around the idea of using freemium services and mulled over the difference between a subscriber and a reader, and I think these are very important concepts to the future of newspapers.

I think this because I’m beginning to realize how securely the concept of a “subscription” is tied to the physical paper delivery. People are not going to pay to look at a newspaper web site. And while American newspapers might only get about 20% of their revenue from subscriptions, that’s an important source of cash to maintain.

Going forward, I think subscription revenue is going to be even more important to newspapers as new measurement metrics and a proliferation of online media channels give advertisers more places to spend their money (and consequently, bring ad prices down).

Not to mention, have a significant chunk of subscription revenue would ease some of the inherent tensions between good editorial and business practices.

So what’s to be done? There aren’t any good digital parallels to the offline subscription. Signing up to an RSS feed isn’t really the same thing as getting a daily on your doorstep. Paying for a peek behind the walls at the Wall Street Journal is a step closer, but it’s still not really the same thing.

I think subscriptions need to move beyond “onffline” and “online.”

I think that many newspapers are resigned to the fact that, sooner or later, it’s going to become economically unfeasible to continue paper delivery. So it makes sense to be thinking about that switch now, and preparing for it.

What’s the best thing a newspaper can do to mitigate the impact of that switch? Expand the idea of a subscription. Let’s think of it as a membership.

Member benefits

The paper delivery should be one of many ways that a member can get at a range of services that a newspaper provides. Newspapers have to walk a tricky line because it’s best for everyone if their columns are well read, linked, and discussed, so you can’t really hide the new content behind a paid wall.

If you go on eBay and search for WoW Gold, you’ll find a lot of offers for a “gold LVL guide.” World of Warcraft is an insanely popular Massively Mutliplayer Online Game where people create and build characters, doing quests in a digital world for digital gold.

As it turns out, selling in-game items or currency (like gold) is against the game’s terms of service, and I think it’s against eBay’s as well. So how is it that you can still buy WoW gold on eBay?

It’s because people are selling their time as “guides.” If, in the course of this service, they happen to hand over a bunch of gold, so be it. But it’s a nice little way to side-step the issue.

Similarly, I think newspapers should give up on trying to charge for their content and try charging for how it is delivered.

In other words, charge for things that are premium services or that offer a large convenience value. If I want to read the news online, that’s free. But if I want the New York Times to track a certain set of keywords and send me a text message whenever news breaks, that’s a member benefit.

Removing a leg

If newspapers are successful in expanding the idea of a subscription, then when it comes time to start shutting down the old presses, you won’t see reports announcing that subscribers have migrated to another paper, which happened just this year in Seattle.

Why not? Because hopefully a paper’s members will be taking advantage of (and paying for) the advanced, digital services being offered, and losing a paper daily—which many members may even have opted out of by then—is more like cutting off a leg than calling Dr. Kevorkian1.

The point, I guess, is to make sure that getting a paper copy on your doorstop every morning is not the singular offering that newspaper subscriptions offer. It should be just one benefit among many.

1. Seriously, how cool is it that the guy known for medically killing people has a name like “Kevorkian?” You couldn’t make that stuff up.

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1 Monica Guzman 05.14.08 at 12:55 pm

I like the WoW analogy. Thinking about member benefits as a function of how content is delivered is a good idea, too. I would guess the fear is that not many people would sign up. But it’s at least something — and could give papers something to advertise, some way to invite their committed readers to differentiate themselves from the hordes that find our articles on Google without ever noticing what paper it’s from. I hate that. :-p

2 Jason Preston 05.19.08 at 7:08 pm

@Mónica – thanks!

I think there’s a shortcut to new subscription adoptance (is that a word? apparently not), which is this: you already have tons of subscribers.

Part of my point is that it should all be one concept. If your paper has a daily circulation count of 352,000, then all you do is enable new services for every one of those paying subscribers.

Put a few promos in the paper delivery and people will start using the new services, because you’re marketing FREE services to an ALREADY loyal, paying audience.

Basically, the idea is to take the current subscription, and make it so that it forms a viable sales pitch going forward.

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