Habit-Forming Journalism: Research tells us more about getting people to pay for online news.

Author:DeRienzo, Matt
Position:Industry: insight

An unprecedented amount of formal research on digital subscription models, and a few frantic years of legacy media organizations and startups alike experimenting with them, are beginning to provide a blueprint for getting readers to pay for online news.

It starts with the basic understanding that convincing someone to purchase a digital subscription is different than print. So much news has been free online and for so long. And a digital subscription is not a tangible, manufactured product that people automatically associate a dollar value with.

In most cases, you are also competing with the fact that someone could search for comparable content and get at least 60 to 70 percent of what they were looking for, for free, instantaneously. Is that extra 30 percent of value worth paying for, or is what's available for free elsewhere good enough?

That's why even news organizations that are pursuing a traditional "paywall" subscription model should be paying attention to the research and experiments with membership programs.

Paying for a digital subscription might be an expression of support for the mission and existence of local journalism in some cases as it is a transaction to unlock access to specific coverage. If that's the case, transparency about your business model, and an explanation of the resources that go into local reporting, are key.

So is asking for support.

"... if you ask, many will give. At least, if you don't ask and don't convey the difficulty of the work you do, your readers will never have an opportunity to monetarily express their support for the journalism your outlet produces," Shan Wang wrote for Nieman Lab last year.

A report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism found that readers who support journalism organizations through paid membership programs aren't in it for the free coffee mug, T-shirt or tote bag. They give because they believe in the mission and work of the organization and were compelled by a message about it that resonated.

It also emphasized engagement. "Sites such as De Correspondent in the Netherlands anticipate that its reporting staff will spend approximately one third to half of its working time in communication with readers."

That's the second level of a concept that any news organization focused on reader revenue is familiar with by now--the subscription funnel.

Poynter's Kristen Hare boils it down to awareness, engagement, conversion and retention.

Building the funnel is one of the pillars of the...

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