Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Nov. 13, 2018, 1:06 p.m.

So some people will pay for a subscription to a news site. How about two? Three?

New York magazine and Quartz both now want readers to pay up. How deep into their pockets will even dedicated news consumers go for a second (or third or fourth) read?

The path forward for premium media is seemingly clear: Put up a paywall.

Digital advertising is a duopoly-dominated mess; any print or broadcast cross-subsidy you might have is declining at one speed or another. Your loyal core digital readers may be only a tiny fraction of that big “monthly uniques” number you put into press releases — but some of them are willing to pay for what you do. Reader revenue is relatively reliable, month to month or year to year, and it’s at the center of media company plans for 2019 and beyond.

But how many paywalls will people really pay to click past? It’s worked for The New York Times; it’s worked for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. But does it work for local newspapers? Metro dailies? Weekly or monthly magazines? Digital native sites?

The data thus far isn’t super encouraging, and that’s the world that New York magazine and Quartz walk into with their just-announced paywalls. New York’s was announced yesterday:

New York Media is now joining other publishing companies or individual publications that have recently added paywalls, including Bloomberg Media, The Atlantic and the Condé Nast magazines Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Wired.

Subscriptions for the New York Media sites will cost $5 a month or $50 annually. For $70 a year, the company will include a subscription to New York magazine, the onetime weekly that started publishing every other week in 2014.

The pay model, which will allow readers a number of stories free before shutting off access, will go into effect the last week of November, according to the company, which would not specify a date for the change.

Quartz, the business news outlet recently purchased by Japan’s Uzabase, made its move this morning:

The Quartz membership is an education in the global economy that’s written to equip you to make more informed decisions at work, in your investments, and in life. Each week, we take you outside of the news cycle to provide analysis, context, and insider insight about one of the players or phenomena that’s upending global markets and rewriting the rules of business. You can read the first installment on our race toward a cashless future (and who wins and loses in it) today. The exclusive new content published every day is designed to deepen the expertise of leaders, and help those aspiring to leadership get ahead in their careers without stepping out of them. Membership — which costs $14.99 per month, or $99.99 for the first year as a special limited-time founding offer — also brings you the ability to engage directly with Quartz’s journalists via conference calls, and join events with other members.

Even news omnivores won’t pay for everything

Both New York and Quartz have been real standouts in terms of digital strategy. New York has made content verticals work far better than most legacy media companies and built an agile editorial voice that really works for the web; Quartz has been a leader in mobile-first thinking, platform-specific strategy, and new interfaces for content discovery and consumption. Between the two, I’ve probably read 100 of their stories in the past month. They’re really good!

But are they $50 a year good? Or $100 a year good? To go alongside $120 a year for The Atlantic, $90 a year for The New Yorker, $420 a year for Bloomberg, $60 a year for Slate, $50 a year for Medium, debitum ad infinitum?

To be fair, these paid products offer substantially different value propositions, mixing content, membership, and experience. Quartz is keeping its main output free to read and making an interesting education-and-networking play that makes sense for a business site; New York is building a paywall that can flex open or closed depending on a reader’s predicted propensity to pay; The Atlantic is mostly offering a premium experience while leaving the main site open; The New Yorker and Bloomberg offer relatively traditional meters allowing a set number of articles a month.

But only 16 percent of Americans say they are willing to pay for any online news. If someone’s first digital subscription is to the Times or the Post — how many are willing to pay for a second, or a third, or a fourth news site? Especially if that second or third site costs as much or more than their favorite national daily?

To frame it another way: There’s a segment of the population that can grudgingly be convinced to pay for a news site, out of some mix of consumer reward, civic duty, and peer pressure. But that second or third subscription requires a level of devotion that can be hard to sustain in a digital environment where the links come at you from every direction.

Are you Netflix or Seeso?

Or allow me a metaphor: Netflix and Amazon have convinced many millions of people to pay for streaming video. But how many of those people think: That’s not enough, I need more? If The New York Times is Netflix and The Washington Post is Amazon (of course) — are these premium national publishers Seeso? Filmstruck? DramaFever?

One complicating factor is that the line between magazines and daily news used to be much more clearly drawn. What you got from a print subscription to The New Yorker or The Atlantic was distinctly different from what you got from the local daily — in timeframe, in editorial approach, in format. But premium magazines’ expansion online has typically been in a newsier direction. Real-time reactions to Mueller news; breaking news from Capitol Hill; columnizing off the latest outrage — these are things can now appear at any of a dozen quality domain names. Wired does great writing about technology, of course — but is it so distinct from what other sites offer that its value remains as clear as it used to be? The Atlantic had a lot of scoops in the last election cycle — but is breaking campaign news something it’s really going to be better at than the Post?

On one hand, it’s unfair to lump this class of premium paid products together — each will succeed or fail on its own merits, both editorial and strategic. A business publication like Quartz will likely have an easier time of it than a more general-interest outlet like New York. But I think it is a fair question to wonder how far down the Paywall Solution can filter through the editorial ecosystem. Local newspapers have already hit this roadblock: While the Times, Post, and Journal build subscriber bases in the millions, most metro dailies have struggled to go far into the five figures. Only two non-national papers — the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe — have more than 100,000 paying digital subscribers. Aggregation theory holds that, in a frictionless marketplace, the Internet tends to aggregate power in the hands of a few large players. That’s benefited Google and Facebook — and, on another scale, the Times and the Post. What about everyone else?

I mused about this idea on Twitter yesterday, and here are some the responses I got — keeping in mind that people who follow me on Twitter are necessarily Very Unusual News Consumers:

Illustration by Louis Richard used under a Creative Commons license.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Nov. 13, 2018, 1:06 p.m.
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