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Jan. 23, 2019, 9:26 a.m.
Business Models

How many paying subscribers do you need to keep a money-losing magazine afloat? Arkansas Life finds out

“Here we are in 2019 and while it may be easier to read a free digital copy or an article that your friend shares, a quality, printed publication showcasing your state is VITAL.”

How many fans does it take to keep a regional print magazine afloat?

In December, subscribers to Arkansas Life received a printed letter along with their January issue.

“Arkansas Life will soon cease publication unless a substantial number of readers become paid subscribers,” the letter from Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Arkansas Life, read. The magazine had been free for most readers since 2008, but now, Hussman wrote, its advertising-based business model was unsustainable.

“In an effort to continue publication, we’re now asking appreciative readers to become paid subscribers at a rate of $20 a year,” the letter went on. “If most and enough of our readers respond to this appeal, the magazine will continue. If not, it will soon be gone like so many other printed publications in recent years.” The bottom of the paper contained a form that readers were supposed to clip off, write in their credit card information, and send back in the mail.

The letter — which didn’t include a link to subscribe online, though that is possible — seemed insufficient to the four-person editorial team at Arkansas Life. Couldn’t more be done than a printed letter from management? Jordan Hickey, who was promoted to the magazine’s editor in November, decided to spearhead a more personal approach spread on — duh — social media. The pitch: People had two weeks to subscribe to Arkansas Life or its publisher would fold it. The campaign included testimonials from writers and staffers, which Arkansas Life posted to its Facebook page each day. Skylark Cafe, a favorite local restaurant, offered a free lunch to anybody who subscribed to the magazine and brought in a print copy. In a Facebook post, the restaurant’s owners wrote:

We cannot shy away from the fact that Arkansas Life has had a great part in keeping us around for this long.

They have boosted our traffic during the cold, most dreaded months of winter, and boosted our morale during the same.

The effect is worth pausing to think about as you consider the impact they have made on our small business and we are just one of the hundreds (probably thousands) of Arkansans that they have impacted in the exact same way.

If you’ve never received a copy of the magazine, It’s filled with gorgeous photography and award winning writing that honestly, I was surprised to find in Arkansas.

They have so many great features on people, places to go and things to do and see that help us remember that Arkansas truly is a special place. We as a small business, and we as Arkansans are lucky to have them.

This is getting long and sappy and trust me, I could go on.

I’m saying all this because our friends at Arkansas Life have recently received the news that if the magazine does not dramatically increase its paid subscriptions, it will cease to exist.

Readership is certainly not the problem but here we are in 2019 and while it may be easier to read a free digital copy or an article that your friend shares, a quality, printed publication showcasing your state is VITAL.

And a paid subscription is what will keep them alive.

Arkansas Life’s roots were as a free ad-supported publication for high-income households; the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state’s largest newspaper, began publishing it in 2008. “The concept was that this would be a high-quality lifestyle magazine, reaching an affluent readership,” Democrat-Gazette president Lynn Hamilton told me. It has been sent free to about 20,000 high-income households, and by late 2018 it also had about 3,500 subscribers paying $10 a year.

“We envisioned being able to keep it profitable through advertising support,” Hamilton said. “We’ve seen ad support dwindle and had only two profitable years out of the 10. The years it did make money, the bottom line was really small. We’ve lost in excess of $1 million — quite a bit more than a million — in the total time of its existence.”

If you’ve been following newspapers’ transition to digital long enough, the name “Walter E. Hussman Jr.” evokes memories of paywall battles past. Back in the web’s earlier days, nearly all American newspapers published their news for free online. Hussman, a third-generation publisher, was an early contrarian, putting up a paywall at the Democrat-Gazette’s website all the way back in 2002 and happily telling everyone else in the industry it was the future.

(“People started coming up to me saying, ‘I really appreciate you putting up that content for free. I don’t have to subscribe to your newspaper anymore,'” he told AJR in 2010. “I thought this was crazy. We’re teaching them they don’t have to subscribe to the paper…I think for a long time there people kind of laughed at us and thought we were kind of stupid for what we were doing.”)

The rest of the newspaper industry has come around to Hussman’s view on paywalls, but he’s continued to be something of a contrarian. Last year, the Democrat-Gazette stopped money-losing home delivery in several counties — instead offering home delivery subscribers there free 12.9-inch, $800 iPad Pros on which to read digital subscriptions. Employees were also sent to the subscribers’ homes to “assist with a tutorial” and help them connect to the internet and install an app. The paper plans to invest up to $800,000 in the iPad program. Hussman called that program a success earlier this month: “We’ve converted between 60 and 70 percent of all the people we’ve contacted.” (The iPads are supposed to be returned if the subscriptions are canceled.)

In the case of Arkansas Life, though, nobody seemed willing to specify exactly how many paid subscriptions would be needed to keep the magazine afloat. Though Hickey got management’s blessing to run the social media campaign, he had no idea what number they needed to hit. (“[Hussman] said we need a majority of our free subscribers,” Hamilton said, citing the letter. “A majority would be in excess of 10,000.”)

Ultimately, when the two-week campaign wrapped up last week, Arkansas Life had pulled in…1,033 new subscribers at $20 a year. That’s only about five percent of the number of people who were getting the magazine free.

Nevertheless, that small number was deemed enough to keep the publication from shutting down. Arkansas Life is shifting to quarterly print publication, with a monthly digital issue. It hasn’t yet been decided how the magazine will be distributed for free beyond February, Hamilton said.

“There are really great stories to be told here,” Hickey said, “especially nowadays, with local news being — kind of more than a little important.”

POSTED     Jan. 23, 2019, 9:26 a.m.
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