Stuff’s announcement that its three metropolitan mastheads will go behind a paywall should be welcomed with a loud sigh of relief.
Finally, the publisher has stopped pussy-footing around reader contributions. Although its voluntary Stuff Supporter Scheme (run through PressPatron) is still in place, it has bitten the bullet on straight-out digital subscriptions. It has made the right move.
From last Saturday, The Post (goodbye Dominion) and its metro sisters The Press and the Waikato Times became sequestered on individual, paywalled websites. For the first 16 weeks, subscribers pay $1.99 a week for one of the three sites or $2.99 for all three. After that discount period, the charge will be $5 a week (the same as the New Zealand Herald’s Premium Content) or $7.50 a week for all three.
I have opted for the bigger bundle on the basis that, if I believe we should pay to consume news that is costly to produce, I should put my money where my mouth is. I similarly paid up when the Herald introduced its premium content. It’s not a bad deal. The Australian’s digital subscription, for example, is $NZ8.50 a week.
It may sound strange that I gave a sigh of relief at having to part with some money but Stuff’s hold-out position on digital subscriptions had meant the public has been receiving mixed messages about paywalls. After Herald Premium was launched, NZME could be seen as Scrooge and free-to-all Stuff as Bruce Wayne (and his alter ego Batman). That misplaced confusion has now gone.
Both, of course, had the same financial imperatives but NZME was under the watchful eye of investors who had become increasingly nervous about the way advertising revenue and print subscriptions were trending. Stuff’s owner Sinead Boucher could march to the beat of her own drum but the same pressures were also facing Stuff.
NZME’s subsequent boldness has paid off. Its annual report last week showed that after four years, it now has 113,000 digital-only subscribers. That number tops its print subscriptions and the digital subs are generating more than $14 million a year. It is revenue the company would not otherwise earn.
The Herald Premium strategy draws on the reach of the Herald website and app. It is tightly integrated into that package and the publisher is unfazed by adverse reaction from users who click on a link to find it is only available to premium subscribers. The rationale is that it is an incentive to subscribe (and it is).
The fact that Stuff is the number one news website in the country might have suggested that it follow a similar approach to Herald Premium, offering some free content and some paid access on its flagship site. The creation of geographically-based paid sites is obviously designed to create a marked point of difference.
It is a strategy with both advantages and disadvantages. It will draw on established loyalties in each of the three regions and will directly offset the inexorable decline in newspaper sales in each of those areas. The concept can also be readily extended to Stuff’s regional titles such as the Southland Times and Taranaki Daily News. However, it denies Stuff a (paid) part of the country’s largest market unless a new paywalled masthead is created for Auckland. Might we see the digital resurrection of the short-lived Auckland Sun?
There was also a surprising omission from the paywall strategy. The Sunday Star Times is a well-regarded member of Stuff’s ‘top table’. It could attract digital subscribers but Stuff appears to have maintained its existing (and somewhat inexplicable) habit of downplaying the Sunday’s profile online. Perhaps a national newspaper did not fit a marketing strategy that heavily emphasises the geographic focus of the paywalled mastheads. However, it remains a strong prospect for digital subscriber revenue.
It is too early to make many judgements about the content of the paywalled sites but the design of each is clean and easy to navigate, although the banner menu does have an ‘interim’ feel to it. For example, it lacks the facility to quickly switch from one site in the bundle to another or to the free Stuff website. For its part, the Stuff website needs a banner-located link to each paid site.
Those who opt for the bundle will also quickly see that, like Stuff’s newspapers, there is a significant amount of shared content. This is particularly so once you leave the main news page. It is unsurprising that lifestyle sections share content but there should be a strong local emphasis in opinion, business and sports content. Perhaps the first three days provide too small (and too early) a sample, but regional differentiation will be an important consideration in meeting the needs of bundle buyers. At least Monday’s home pages (above) had local differentiation.
NZME opted for a relatively easy formula for its free/premium mix. Effectively, it puts a price tag on some stories and not on others on the same site. Stuff’s strategy will require somewhat more complex editorial protocols. Digital revenue prospects require it to keep drawing audience to the free Stuff website, while at the same time it must maintain a good value proposition on the paid sites if it is to avoid high churn rates. That will require careful content management.
The media world knows paid content does not spell instant success and patience is a virtue. The New York Times launched its digital subscriptions over a decade ago and took four years to reach a million digital subscribers. That number now exceeds six million.
Stuff has made the right move and we have seen only the beginning of its digital pay strategy. It has entered the field as a growing number of people accept the concept of paying for news online. AUT’s research centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy (JMAD) in its 2023 report on trust in media found that 23 per cent of New Zealanders had paid for online news. That puts this country between Sweden and Finland and well above the international average of 17 per cent. In time, the public attitude should be little different from the past when we routinely put money in the honesty box before extracting that day’s paper.