From Paywalls to Personalization: The Papers’ Play for Profits

Facing a sustained period of digital disruption, some of the more traditional publishers are now proving to be the most innovative, using data analytics.

Just over two decades ago, as access to the internet became more pervasive and as the Web was increasingly capturing audiences around the world, newspapers made a calculated leap from which they could never turn back. The New York Times, The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, among others, launched their founding websites in 1996, paving the way for traditional news publishing to venture into new digital terrain.

With high hopes that the online editions would increase advertising revenue and help attract new subscribers to the print editions, most newspapers disseminated content freely – and, often literally, for free – making the online editions available to anyone with a computer and a modem. Little did they know they were at the precipice of a major digital revolution, one that would change the long-standing industry to an almost unrecognizable degree.

The Washington Post, according to its Chief Revenue Officer Jed Hartman, now views itself as a “tech company that wins Pulitzers.” The British daily newspaper The Times will no longer be reporting 24 hours a day on of-the-moment breaking news, instead publishing in batches during peak engagement times. While the newspaper industry is in a sustained period of disruption, some of the more traditional publishers are proving to be the most innovative.

Putting up the Paywall

When the Wall Street Journal’s website launched in April of 1996, it already had a “paywall” – meaning readers had to log in with their subscription information in order to get access to the news. At $49 a year, or $29 for print edition subscribers, newspaper industry insiders mused over whether it would succeed. Yet 21 years later, the Wall Street Journal’s paywall persists and other major papers have since followed suit. After sinking millions of dollars into largely flailing online sites, The New York Times subsequently established their paywall in 2011 and The Washington Post in 2013, further proving that consumers will pay for access to quality content, even when they already have free access to a plethora of news sources.

“We’ve been very aggressive with the metered paywall,” says The Washington Post’s Hartman. “We’re still experimenting, of course, because we want to optimize as it gives and takes, but it’s been very successful and we’re happy with what the subscription business has become.”

He notes, however, that their paywall is largely successful for the same reason the Wall Street Journal’s is: quality counts. “[Readers] get lightning fast, smooth delivery in the product, and the most trusted content in the world. When you’re delivering both of those, it’s worth paying for.” And, The Washington Post equally benefits from the data driven through readers’ digital experience before and after they get through the paywall.

Putting Big Data to Work

“Utilizing data and data strategies is without a doubt the next big thing for media companies,” says Martha Stone, founder of the Big Data for Media conferences. “The industry has had enough experience in fielding disruption that if they don’t know by now to catch the train before it passes them by, then they likely won’t progress into the future. Data allows [news outlets] to know their customers better, to drive more traffic to their sites and to create products that they know their customers want.”

Prior to online news sites and the digitization of the media, newspaper companies could track subscription numbers and potentially subscriber information, but that was where the data analytics stopped.

“We’ve been sort of wandering around in the dark making guesses about what people wanted. If we made good enough guesses to make the aggregate package that is a newspaper work, then we prospered,” says U.K.-based digital publishing consultant Adam Tinworth. “And if we didn’t, we didn’t. Online is a much more brutal environment, where you have to individually package and sell each piece of content.”

No longer in the dark and throwing content against the proverbial wall to see what will stick, news companies are leveraging reader data to reshape how they present their news. That’s why The Times has gotten off the non-stop breaking news cycle, switching instead to four well-timed content drops that refresh the site throughout the day at times of peak engagement.

Tinworth, who worked with The Times and Sunday Times staff to help prepare the team for the publishing switch, explains that the shift came out of a curiosity to know more about how their readers consumed news. The paper, which had been successfully profiting off a paywall for several years, looked into reader data and found that there was a definite rhythm to the working day. There was the early morning period pre-work, a check in once people arrived at their desks, a lunchtime peak and an uptick during the early evening commute. These peaks became the site’s new publishing schedule.

“It all became very clear that the paying subscribers weren’t constantly on the site, as previously thought. They were busy working and only checked in during certain times throughout the day,” Tinworth says. “Just because digital technology gives us the ability to publish all the time, doesn’t mean it’s the right move for everybody.”

For large news organizations, like The Washington Post, catching the data analytics train means building out a complete technology research arm stacked with Web developers and engineers. Jarrod Dicker, head of the Post’s RED Team, which stands for research, experimentation and development, leads the team on their mission to build exclusive products that can help solve key publishing issues at the paper, as well as on other partner and advertiser platforms.

For example, Post Cards is a unique delivery tool that creates customized user experiences. With their proprietary data technology tool, the RED team is able not only to track which articles, images or videos readers click on most, but they can also create a profile for each individual user and leverage that data for advertisers to provide a much more relevant offer and/or message to the reader. Watch here for Jarrod’s take on how the RED team has become The Post’s incubation arm.

“Post Cards came about through the idea that each consumer reads our content in a different way. Some like videos, some enjoy long-form content, whereas others like TL:DR type snackable content,” Dicker explains, (noting the editor’s shorthand for content that is “Too Long: Didn’t Read”). “Instead of waiting for a user to click on a promotional module, get to the page and then hopefully find the content that they’re most interested in, we can eliminate the first step. If they prefer video…let’s give them video exactly where they are.”

At the end of the day, data helps the bottom line. If putting data strategies to work to create more engaging content attracts new subscribers and advertising partners, then it’s a win for the industry.

“In terms of how all this innovation translates to revenue, subscriptions have been growing fast and furious,” Hartman says. “We’re seeing pretty strong business once again, and that’s following an enormous 2016 for the Post.”

Using Big Data to Personalize the Future of News

Digging into reader and subscription data has led to a boom or bust when it comes to releasing content on external publishing platforms, like the much-debated Facebook Instant Articles. Built to create fast-loading, native mobile articles that streamline the process from newsfeed to news story, the Instant Articles tool launched in 2015, ready to transform how Facebook users consumed news.

Many publishers, hesitant to release content for free without the benefit of traffic being directed back to their sites, tested Instant Articles with a few stories per month. Some liked what they found—that readers were being converted to the site after consuming a handful of articles on the platform. For others, the trial period proved what many had thought to be true: that the publishers’ own sites monetized better than Facebook’s approach. The New York Times, an early publisher to test the platform, recently pulled its participation, as did magazine giant Hearst.

The Washington Post takes a different, user-centric approach. “We give all our content to Facebook Instant Articles. We really want to see how it all works, so we’re going to experiment. And we’ve seen many positives in engagement…and revenue,” says Hartman. “Facebook has immense control over your traffic whether you’re in Instant Articles or not. Wouldn’t you rather lean into that, become a deeper part of the platform and create a better product for the user?”

For digital-first publications, such as Quartz, BuzzFeed, VICE News and Vox Media, Instant Articles would have seemed a natural progression—after all, these platforms had to figure out how to monetize content without a paywall from inception. However, Quartz and Vice News have already pulled out of the program, while BuzzFeed and Vox Media are showing signs of increased engagement on the platform, proving that digital-first publications are on the same trial-and-error monetization roller coaster as traditional news outlets.

“In five years or so, what we’ll likely see more of is how younger people consume news—on mobile and digital media, which is why news aggregation sites are taking hold,” Stone says. “These personalized news sources, like the Facebook newsfeed, will be different for every user and will be extremely relevant for each individual reader.”

News aggregation apps, like the Beijing-based Toutiao and Japan’s SmartNews, are already leading the way in the new market of algorithm-customized newsfeed user experiences. Over 700 million subscribers already use Toutiao in China and the company closed its latest funding round late last year with an $11 billion market valuation; SmartNews has over 20 million downloads worldwide and an estimated valuation of $600 million. Both apps were launched in 2012, making them early adopters of the personalization movement and placing them at the forefront of machine-curated feeds.

For newspapers still recovering from years of sinking money into difficult-to-monetize online sites, using data analytics to deliver personalized news is a challenging, but hopeful next step.

“If you look at the way newspapers have operated traditionally, elements of that certainly are not relevant anymore,” Hartman notes. “There’s other portable, curated ways to get content right now that are very appealing. However, if you can capitalize on the other options and you maximize the opportunity that works for your paper, your business can grow into the future.”

“The industry has had enough experience in fielding disruption that if they don’t know by now to catch the train before it passes them by, then they likely won’t progress into the future.