Digital subscriptions to major media surge amid pandemic

The New York Times Company said it reached 8 million subscriptions in a press release announcing its earnings for the second quarter Wednesday. The company projects it will reach 8.5 million paid subscribers by the end of the year.

Most of those subscriptions, according to the press release, are digital-only. 

Meredith Kopit Levien, the chief executive of the company, said in the press release that the company’s recent performance was a “testament to the success” of its strategy of focusing on digital subscriptions.

USA TODAY also saw tangible revenue increases in digital consumption over the last year. Mizell Stewart III, vice president of news, performance, talent and partnerships for Gannett and the USA TODAY network, said the majority of USA TODAY’s revenue comes from digital forces rather than print or advertising.

“Both organizationally and in terms of employment opportunities,” Stewart said, “I think this is only going to continue.” 

A 2021 report from the World Association of News Publishers identified digital subscription growth as a shift toward digital media and increased trust in the news among readers. The report said over half of those who pay for news subscriptions in the U.S. tend to invest in a subscription to more than one publication. 

The New York Times attributed much of its subscription growth to the willingness of its readers to “pay for high quality journalism,” according to the press release. During the pandemic publications like the Times were able to capitalize on reader attention and boost subscriptions. 

Carla Correa, deputy director of early career programs for the New York Times, said the company dropped its subscription paywall at the height of coronavirus coverage last year as a public service, but wound up increasing traffic in other sections on the website as well as subscription plans. 

“We tried to think about, ‘Okay, this is the news of the day, but you can’t spend three hours reading about coronavirus in the New York Times,'” Correa said. “You kind of need to give your brain a break, so, what other things can we offer?” 

Correa said many people probably subscribed because they wanted to read more about the coronavirus but found other things they liked, such as the spelling bee and crossword puzzle app. Using the data from those new subscribers, audience strategists at the Times were able to learn about who was reading which stories, how long they were reading them and where they were from, among other things, to determine what the company can do to maintain such a high level of digital engagement, Correa said. 

“We converted our travel section to be an at home section because people weren’t traveling,” Correa said. “Our food section became really popular, too, because we started talking about all the different trends, like making bread and things like that.” 

While news organizations like the New York Times and USA TODAY have seen success in the digital subscription landscape, smaller or local news publications are experiencing much slower digital growth.

The report from the World Association of News Publishers said “the great majority of news consumers choose not to pay for any online news.” Of those digital subscribers, the report said, a large portion go only to a few big national brands.

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