How some of the UK’s most successful newspapers use content to create value with customers

Both magazines and newspapers have been part of the trend towards subscriptions in recent years, in particular during the past 18 months. Two newspapers which have taken very different approaches to monetisation in the UK are The Times and The Sunday Times and The Express, discussed during the FIPP D2C Summit in June.

Rich Fairbairn, co-founder and CPO at publishing platform Glide and FIPP’s Chief Revenue Officer, John Schlaefli, spoke with some of the people steering the strategies of these papers: Alan Hunter, Head of Digital at The Times and The Sunday Times and Geoff Marsh, Digital Editorial Director at Reach Plc, which publishes The Express.

They discussed the flexibility now required of journalists across print and digital, the game-changing power of data, why affiliate marketing is still important and much more.

Watch their full discussion from the D2C Summit here:

Approaches to subscriptions, then and now

Marsh began by saying that in the early days of digital, The Express and many of the dozens of other newspapers managed by Reach followed the model which was widespread across the publishing industry at the time: simply replicating print content in a digital format, supported by display advertising. The Express has always followed a free model as opposed to subscriptions or donations, and Marsh doesn’t expect that to change any time in the near future.

What is different now, though, as Marsh explained, is that they’ve evolved from having a single revenue stream to having a much more diversified mix, with 15 or so revenue streams. “We’ve gone from being a loss-making website in the early 2000s to being very profitable today,” he said. “It’s a cliché, but it’s very much been a journey.”

The Times and The Sunday Times were also free to read online until 2010, when they decided to take an alternative path. “When we put up a paywall, the calculation was that we could make more money from subscriptions than we could through advertising,” explained Hunter. 

“Now, we are emphatically subscriptions-first. Of course, it doesn’t have the same scalability, but it has the advantage of allowing us to know a lot about who our readers are. But the core is really serving our paying subscribers.”

The challenge is how to use one staff to appeal to all the users’ different needs across print and digital.

Geoff Marsh

Distinct print and digital audiences

Fairbairn asked about the risks associated with blurring print and digital into one product. How had the speakers approached this? Hunter and Marsh agreed, though, that print and digital tend to appeal to different audiences, in line with demographic trends. 

“There is always that fear that one audience will cannibalise another,” said Hunter. “For example, we initially set our price too low, selling the offer as ‘everything you can get in the print version, and more’. Unsurprisingly, a lot of customers spotted it was a good deal and switched over from the print to the digital version.

“Now, though, consumers are a lot more sophisticated, and there is very little crossover between print and digital audiences. Publishing a story early in digital format, for instance, doesn’t impact print sales the next day. I think we’ve won the argument that we are writing different content for two different audiences – bluntly, your older print audience isn’t going to worry that things are out there in digital format earlier. And there’s a question about content – I think digital products in themselves are starting to diverge, and they will continue to diverge quite significantly.”

Marsh agreed that at The Express, there is very little crossover in the audience – just five to six per cent of the paper’s print readers also read it online, with the digital-first audience growing faster and the print audience shrinking, following wider population shifts.

“There’s no doubt that they’re two distinct audiences, but across print and digital we obviously share values, tone of voice, and much of our content,” he added. “If anything, the challenge is how to use one staff to appeal to all these users’ different needs across print and digital.”

“We had the same consideration, and we wanted our best journalists concentrating on the growing, i.e. digital, platform,” said Hunter. “Core reporting staff at The Times and The Sunday Times now work across all platforms, with the traditional reporting skills augmented by digital specialists making graphics, using data, etc. I think it’s quite a common for publishers that after the initial fast growth of their digital platform, it makes economic sense to come back to one staff – and journalistic sense too.”

The data is our readers now.

Alan Hunter

“We are entering the decade of data”

Fairbairn turned the conversation to the topic of data. For Marsh, it is important to know the difference between data and insight. “You can drown in data, but insight – by which I mean data you can pull out, and which becomes actionable – is the buoyancy device that brings you to the surface. 

“I often think of free publisher websites as being more like traditional retail environments: only about ten to 15 per cent of our audience is direct, and the rest we have to go out and fight for every day. So we need to understand the competition and the market opportunity, using the very best, most up-to-date data and insight.

“It’s such a big company, and audiences vary from brand to brand within that. There are more search-driven sites, and social-driven sites. The dream would be something like 30 per cent of our audience coming via Google, 30 per cent from Facebook, 30 per cent direct and 10 per cent referral. Where we converge with The Times is in trying to generate loyalty in our audience through newsletters and things like that, rather than accepting that the majority of them are ‘drive-by’ viewers.”

Despite their differing perspectives on subscriptions, Hunter agrees “100 per cent” with Marsh. “Journalists are optimistic people, so they’re always going to find a positive picture in the data. We’re trying to cut through that noise and find something that can actually drive future actions. 

“We are entering the decade of data, and this is a crucial opportunity for publishers. The data points of old used to be print sales, ad revenue and whether the editor was happy – oh and possibly a few letters or phone calls to the news desk! But the data is our readers now – we can know so much about them. So I think those publishers that don’t follow the data will wither and die.

“For us, engagement is the key measure for each story. We’re competing for the attention of our subscribers, so we want to keep them reading and keep them enjoying the content. We’re not competing for eyeballs. The hugely successful tech giants are all data businesses – and we have to become data businesses too.”

Extra revenue streams

Reach has also made use of data to better match audiences with relevant commercial partners, leading to its affiliate partnership with Kit Launch, for example.

At The Times and The Sunday Times, Hunter explained that high trust in these newspaper brands is why people are willing to spend money with them beyond their subscription, creating extra revenue streams. 

“The reason people will buy a cruise recommended by us, for example, is because they trust us,” he said. “We’re able to sell extra products to people to match their passions and interests, like puzzles – dwell time is so high on Times puzzles, we’ve decided to group them together in an app.” 


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