Digital circulation is growing, but it needs to be more and faster

Photo (cc) 2005 by rnv123

Will digital subscriptions save the newspaper business? They had better. With advertising in a death spiral, publishers have to hope that readers will pick up the slack. Progress has been slow, but it may finally be picking up.

Marc Tracy reports in The New York Times that several newspaper chains, including Lee Enterprises and Gannett, have experienced significant increases in paid digital circulation. The problem is that these increases are spread over many papers, and the situation at any one of them remains dicey.

For instance, Gannett is up 46% over the past year, to 1.5 million paid digital subscriptions — yet it owns about 250 daily papers, including USA Today. Those numbers need to be exponentially greater if Gannett is going to re-establish itself as a lucrative business and actually start adding rather than cutting journalistic resources.

“There’s a big misperception out there that there’s a big hole in local journalism, and I think that narrative’s been created by people who aren’t sitting in local markets,” Gannett chief executive Mike Reed told Tracy. As a longtime reader of Gannett’s (previously GateHouse Media’s) community weeklies, all I’ve got to say is: You’ve got to be kidding.

In order for paid digital to work, you also have to charge enough. To go back to USA Today, I see that the cost is $9.99 a month after the first-year discount expires. That’s not bad, but it’s well behind The Boston Globe’s $30 a month. And the Globe has managed to sell a reported 235,000 digital subscriptions. Of course, the Globe, like most newspapers, offers a huge discount to new subscribers, which means it then has to figure out a way to keep them.

In order to succeed with digital subscriptions, you need good content and good technology. Many of the papers now trying to succeed in the digital space have been cut substantially. And too many newspaper websites are still clunky mish-mashes with pop-ups, pop-unders and other annoyances.

It’s better to grow than to shrink, so in that sense I guess Tracy’s story is good news. But there’s still a long way to go.