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Nov. 23, 2021, 9 a.m.

A rose is a rose is a rose, but please, please make it clear to your readers what a “subscriber” is

Do you mean “people who pay a news company hundreds of dollars a year”? Or “email addresses we have in a spreadsheet somewhere”?

Check your credit card statement and you’ll probably agree: We’re living in a subscription economy. People who want to hear new music used to buy CDs; now they subscribe to Spotify. People who need Adobe Photoshop used to pay for it once; now they pay every month. Your kid wants to watch “The Lion King” 500 times? Before, you’d buy the DVD; now Disney+ charges you $7.99 until you die or your card expires.

And digital subscriptions have been just about the only happy tale the news media has had to tell about itself in recent years. Once a comparatively small part of American media revenue — around 20% for newspapers and 0% for terrestrial TV and radio — subscriptions are now the biggest piece of the pie for many publishers.

Which means it’s important to be clear when we talk about them!

I know I’ve complained about this before, but allow me to quote myself:

“Subscribers” is a term that can mean two things: “people who pay for regular access to your product” or “people whose email address we have.”

The context there was the implosion of Ozy, which at various points claimed it had “5 million” (!) or “25 million” (!!!) “subscribers,” neither of which seems particularly likely by any definition.

(Speaking of Ozy: In the past week, its Twitter account has tweeted 14 times. Those 14 tweets have gotten a total of 6 retweets and 9 likes, combined. In that span, it’s posted five videos to YouTube. They’ve generated 483, 374, 207, 200, and 42 views. So far, Ozy 2.0 is a lot like Ozy 1.0.)

But this is a issue that goes beyond the Currently Under Federal Investigation for Securities Fraud Division of digital publishers.

You’ve probably heard of Punchbowl News, the D.C. newsletter company started by some ex-Politico Playbook people. It sends out three editions a day, one free to all and two only to paying subscribers who pony up either $30/month or $300/year.

A few months back, Punchbowl announced it had reached a significant total: 100,000 subscribers.

Good for them! So 100,000 people are paying $300 a year — what a business!

Except no, actually, the 100,000 were just subscribers to the free email. The number of paying subscribers was closer to 3,000. Punchbowl didn’t say “We have 100,000 paying subscribers” — but as a company known mostly for its high-price subscription product, not making that clear is asking for trouble.

Imagine writing a story that said, without any context: “The New York Times has more than 28 million subscribers.” Wow, what a huge number! That really is how many subscribers its 70-plus email newsletters have, combined. But you wouldn’t say that, because when people think of “New York Times” and “subscribers,” they’re thinking about how many people pay the Times for access to its products, not how many email addresses it has in a database somewhere.

That’s especially true if you’re literally writing a story about how great the paid subscription model is. Like this one Monday in the Financial Times. It’s about The Information, which was an early mover in this high-price niche digital subscription space. The lede:

The Information, a technology news publication aimed at Silicon Valley insiders, has reached 225,000 active users, underlining the rise of specialist subscriptions as a business model for journalism.

Again, this is a story specifically about paid digital subs as a business model. I’d bet $10 most people who read that paragraph came away thinking The Information had 225,000 paid subscribers. But it’s not until the 12th graf that you get this:

The Information charges $400 a year for full access. The 225,000 figure includes paying subscribers and people who have subscribed to a newsletter, which is free. Lessin says The Information, which she started with her own money and has 49 employees, is profitable but declined to give specifics.

In what world is it useful to lump together “people who pay $400 a year” and “email addresses in a Mailchimp list” into a single category? “That new French restaurant downtown serves 8,300 people every night! About 40 order the $200 prix fixe tasting menu, while 8,260 enjoy a glimpse of the front door as they stroll past its storefront.”

That FT piece doubles down:

The Information is among a crop of young media ventures seeking to build specialised subscription businesses with a similar pitch: providing valuable information to a specific — and wealthy — audience.

Reporters from Politico, the US political news website, left in January to create Punchbowl News, a publication focused on “the people in Washington who make decisions”. The company charges $300 a year and has reached more than 100,000 subscribers.


It’s natural for companies to want to brag about their big numbers. (Though I would hope a news company would at least think about being more straightforward about it.) So those of us who write about the media need to be the line of enforcement here.

Unless you’re writing a story in which the context makes it dead obvious, reserve the word “subscribers” for people who actually pay a media company money. Call the people who get a free email “email subscribers” or “newsletter subscribers,” not just “subscribers.”

You’ll do a better job of informing your readers, you’ll give the industry a more accurate vision of the state of affairs, and — most importantly — you’ll save me some annoyed tweets.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Nov. 23, 2021, 9 a.m.
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