The Globe makes some headway on digital subscriptions

Photo (cc) by Tom Cole.

Photo (cc) by Tom Cole.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

Newspaper analyst Ken Doctor takes a look at The Boston Globe’s strategy of charging 99 cents a day for digital access and pronounces it promising. Indeed, at a time when advertising in print newspapers is on the decline and digital advertising seems unlikely ever to make up the difference, it seems clear that large regional newspapers like the Globe have got to persuade their audience to pick up a bigger share of the tab if they’re going to survive.

The article is well worth reading in full. Here are a few takeaways.

1. As Doctor notes, The New York Times now has more than 1 million digital-only subscribers. The Globe has just 65,000. That’s not a gap — it’s a chasm. Yet the Globe has proved to be the most successful regional paper in the country at selling digital subscriptions. Doctor attributes the difference to dramatically less interest in local and regional news than in national and international news.

Doctor adds: “The Globe, under editor Brian McGrory’s direction, produces a high volume of high-quality content each day.” True. Unfortunately, you can pick up the regional paper in nearly any city and find a lot less than what you’ll find in the Globe, which would make the dollar-a-day strategy a dubious proposition in most places.

2. Who exactly is paying 99 cents a day for the digital Globe? Not me. We’ve been subscribers since the 1980s. We currently receive the Sunday print edition, which gives us seven-day digital access. The price has crept up gradually, but we’re still paying just $19.96 a month. That works out to a little less than 66 cents a day.

My point is that the Globe does not have 65,000 readers paying 99 cents a day for digital access. Some percentage of them are paying less than that. Doctor does make it clear that there’s a transition in the works, but he doesn’t break down the numbers. Eventually, he adds, the Globe needs to hit 200,000 digital subscribers in order to claim success.

3. The big question, which Doctor doesn’t broach, is whether anyone under 40 is even interested in an aggregated news package, or if instead they’re content to get news from a variety of different sources such as Facebook or Apple News. By far the biggest challenge faced by the news business as we used to know it is not the shift from print to digital, but from reliance on a few branded news organizations to a cacophony mediated by tech companies.

In other words, what the Globe is doing may well work for older subscribers like me. But what happens when people in their 20s and 30s, whose main exposure to the Globe is through social sharing, enter their 40s and 50s? Are they going to change their news consumption habits? Probably not.