Can Analytics Keep ‘Trump Bump’ Subscribers Around for the Long Haul?

Article ImageFor an institution openly loathed by the current presidential administration, the Fourth Estate appears to have an awful lot for which to thank President Donald Trump. The 45th president’s outspoken disdain for news publishers (such as The New York Times and The Washington Post) has sent digital subscription revenues surging to record levels since fall 2016.

The Times, for instance, reported 276,000 new digital news subscriptions in 4Q 2016, which was a record until 3 months later, when it announced that 308,000 new digital news subscribers had signed up during 1Q 2017. The Atlantic announced it had added one-third of its total new subscription orders for the year during just the last 2 months of it, signing on 56% more new subscribers compared to 2015. ProPublica had to hire a director of online fundraising and outreach to help channel its post-election donation surge. And The Wall Street Journal added 118,000 new digital subscribers in 1Q 2017.

But perhaps the most telling sign of the current zeitgeist? Urban Outfitters is now marketing a shirt to its young, hipster clientele featuring The Times’ masthead on its front and along one sleeve—at a cost just under the student price for an annual, basic digital subscription.

News publishers must wrestle with the same conundrum that organizers of resistance movements such as the Women’s March and the March for Science face: how to harness that heightened post-election energy and engagement for the long haul. The challenge is  to smooth and manage the Trump Bump into a Trump Trajectory.

Ken Doctor, president of Newsonomics, has framed this subscription surge as a watershed opportunity for publishers, the moment in which they can ride renewed public support for a free press to create more sustainable business models. “The linchpin of the strategy for elite national publications has been to move to majority readership revenue, with ads as a secondary revenue source,” says Doctor. “Publications like The New York Times and the Financial Times have already crossed the 60% line for reader-generated revenue, and The Wall Street Journal is close to it.” He adds, “When Mark Thompson [CEO of The Times] says that the company is first and foremost a subscription business, that’s a profound change.”

Doctor believes that the subscription-dominant revenue model requires one critical ingredient to be successful: sufficient, unique, differentiated content. That’s easier said than done when newsroom cuts have gone bone deep, but power players such as The Times and The Post have geared up for the challenge. “The Times has 1,300 people in the newsroom and turns out 250 stories each day,” says Doctor. In the same month that the president was inaugurated, The Post announced plans to hire 60 new journalists, bringing its newsroom head count up to 750.

Other publications that have offered content for free in the past are rolling out paywalls, sensing perhaps that the 2016 election cycle has reminded readers of the value of news—and the threat of what the landscape looks like with fewer news sources. In April, the magazine Trump loves to publicly hate, Vanity Fair, telegraphed its plan to implement a paywall by the end of 2017, following in the footsteps of its Condé Nast sister publication, The New Yorker. Says Doctor, “They may have been allergic to paywalls in the past, but The New Yorker proved to Condé Nast that it works.” He expects other Condé Nast publications such as WIRED to look closely at the paywall opportunity.

It would be wonderful if all news publishers’ boats were rising on the Trump Bump, but that’s not the case. Smaller and regional publications whose newsrooms have been hollowed out by years of layoffs will struggle to meet the “sufficient, unique, differentiated content” condition that Doctor describes. “And most dailies are only getting 35% to 40% of their revenues from readers, so they’re still heavily dependent on advertising.”

No one expects the Trump Bump to last forever. James Follo, The Times’ EVP and CFO, told investors, on the 1Q 2017 earnings call, that the rate of new subscription adds began to slow toward the end of the quarter and that he expects such moderation to continue through 2Q.

“There are two factors to keep a close eye on with regard to the subscription surge,” says Doctor. “The ongoing rate of increase—how well these publishers do in continuing to add new subscriptions—and churn.” Doctor believes the proof will come 6 months out from the election and inauguration: Will subscribers re-up their commitments?

This may be where analytics can give publishers a boost. Now that the hook has been set for so many new readers, news publishers have tools at their disposal to keep them on the line, assessing reading and subscription habits on a granular basis. One key metric that Doctor expects to make a difference? Consumption of non-political content. “Publishers are probably better off if they have someone reading 50 political articles and 50 sports articles than they are with a reader who consumes 125 political articles,” he says.

Maribel Perez Wadsworth, Gannett’s chief transformation officer, alludes to this when she says, “Reader engagement in this election cycle and administration has been very high, but we don’t hinge our business on surges of partisan polarization. Readers come to us in great numbers for sports and entertainment coverage also [and] that underscores our need to provide a more holistic experience, which we believe is key to deepening engagement.”

Wadsworth adds, “We’ve developed proprietary tools which apply advanced data science to a nuanced understanding of our content, and similarly aligned analytics resources from various parts of our company. Rather than simply tracking page views and popularity, this approach lets us build actionable models which help us understand and predict what content, and what storytelling formats, resonate best with which audiences, on which platforms.”

Of course, any giddiness about the Trump Bump effect takes place against a backdrop of continued downward pressure on news publishers. “Print advertising revenues are still in a freefall,” says Doctor, “and digital advertising is dominated by Google and Facebook. They’re taking all the breath out of the market.” Amid the rosy news about its hyperactive digital subscription growth in 1Q 2017 was the sobering news that The Times’ print advertising revenue had fallen 18% year-over-year for the quarter.

Still, for publications that can offer sufficient, unique, and differentiated content, this does appear to be a historic moment to capture public support, and advertising campaigns reflect it. Whether it’s The Times’ The Truth Is campaign, digital newsstand vendor Textured pointing out in radio commercials out that every subscription puts money in the pockets of publishers (which has, of course, always been the case), or The Post’s dramatic “Democracy Dies in Darkness” masthead modification, 2017 will be a year when publishers do all they can to ensure that readers continue to wear their support for an independent press on their sleeves. 

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