Digital subscriber growth will slow, but that won’t be all bad

“Slowing growth will renew our imperative to focus on the needs of our readers and the quality of our products — simply because it leaves us with no other choice.”

2021 has been a stressful year for news organizations counting on paid digital subscriptions for sustainability.

In the early years of digital subscription programs, growth came more easily as loyal, long-time readers converted in large numbers. That was followed by the “Trump bump,” then a global pandemic that led readers to us in droves.

And then things stalled. From Netflix and The New York Times to many local newsrooms, digital subscription growth has slowed in 2021. Blame news fatigue, subscription fatigue, market saturation, macroeconomic concerns, or whatever you’d like — the last year brought the sobering reminder that for even the most successful digital subscription businesses, converting new subscribers only gets harder as time goes on.

One way or another, 2022 is going to teach us much about the durability of our digital subscription strategies. By the end of the year, we’ll know whether 2021 was a blip or our new reality. We’ll better understand what each of our individual markets will bear. There will be adjusting of forecasts, revising of expectations, and wringing of hands.

All that might not be good for our short-term bottom lines, but it could be good for our long-term sustainability.

Slowing growth will renew our imperative to focus on the needs of our readers and the quality of our products — simply because it leaves us with no other choice. Strategies that were backburnered as we scrambled through the growth years will take on new life as we fight to win new subscribers on the margins.

Readers who choose to pay for us will be more intentional and less transactional, driven by a deeper appreciation for our journalism and digital products. The pace with which we continue to grow new subscriptions will be more up to us and less up to events beyond our control.

It’ll be scary, maybe, but also hopeful. No pressure, no diamonds.

Chase Davis is deputy managing editor for digital strategy and technology at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

2021 has been a stressful year for news organizations counting on paid digital subscriptions for sustainability.

In the early years of digital subscription programs, growth came more easily as loyal, long-time readers converted in large numbers. That was followed by the “Trump bump,” then a global pandemic that led readers to us in droves.

And then things stalled. From Netflix and The New York Times to many local newsrooms, digital subscription growth has slowed in 2021. Blame news fatigue, subscription fatigue, market saturation, macroeconomic concerns, or whatever you’d like — the last year brought the sobering reminder that for even the most successful digital subscription businesses, converting new subscribers only gets harder as time goes on.

One way or another, 2022 is going to teach us much about the durability of our digital subscription strategies. By the end of the year, we’ll know whether 2021 was a blip or our new reality. We’ll better understand what each of our individual markets will bear. There will be adjusting of forecasts, revising of expectations, and wringing of hands.

All that might not be good for our short-term bottom lines, but it could be good for our long-term sustainability.

Slowing growth will renew our imperative to focus on the needs of our readers and the quality of our products — simply because it leaves us with no other choice. Strategies that were backburnered as we scrambled through the growth years will take on new life as we fight to win new subscribers on the margins.

Readers who choose to pay for us will be more intentional and less transactional, driven by a deeper appreciation for our journalism and digital products. The pace with which we continue to grow new subscriptions will be more up to us and less up to events beyond our control.

It’ll be scary, maybe, but also hopeful. No pressure, no diamonds.

Chase Davis is deputy managing editor for digital strategy and technology at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

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