Zombie subscribers are not the worst problem for a digital news source to have

Photo (cc) 2012 by Gianluca Ramalho Misiti

You may have heard about a new problem facing news publishers as they continue to transition to reader revenue — “digital zombies,” or paid-up subscribers who rarely or never visit. A study at Northwestern University “found that 49% of subscribers didn’t go to the websites they had paid for even once a month,” according to Mark Jacob of the university’s Local News Initiative.

I would argue that this isn’t the worst problem to have, and that it may be more of an artifact of our ability to measure everything in the digital space than it is something new and threatening. Back in the days of print-only, we simply didn’t know how much time people spent with the newspaper. Oh, sure, there were surveys, but you can be sure that most respondents would want to tell researchers that yes, of course, they read every word of that seven-part series on pension reform because, you know, it’s very, very important.

The fact is that people signed up for newspaper delivery out of habit. Some spent a lot of time with the news. Some read only the sports section. Some read the funnies. And some might have only picked up the paper so they could clip out the Wednesday food coupons.

If a digital subscription is cheap enough, you might sign up so that you’ll have access on the rare occasions that you need it and so you can support the work those news organizations are doing. I’m not going to identify the news sources, but I can think of one that I gladly pay even though I only look at it once or twice a year and another that is, at best a tertiary read. Of course, I understand that I work in news and so my habits may be different from others’. But I don’t think that having customers who pay without reading is all that terrible unless they suddenly start canceling en masse.

“Concern is growing about this problem because even though the living dead may still pay for local news, they seem like a weak foundation to build a future on,” writes Jacob, adding that publishers are trying several strategies to reanimate their zombies, including targeted newsletters, better recommendation systems and the like.

According to the Better News website, Gannett’s Arizona Republic found a direct correlation between lack of engagement and canceled subscription — 50% of canceled subscriptions came from the 42% of subscribers who were visiting the paper’s website less than once a month.

And yes, it’s important to try to keep those customers. Publishing strong journalism and making sure that even your zombies are aware of it really matters. But most papers offer steep discounts to new customers. For instance, you can get a three-month digital-only subscription to the Republic for just $1, which the paper touts as a 97% savings.

If I’m doing the math correctly, that comes to about $32 a month once the discount expires. That means the Republic and others who offer such discounts, including The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, have a few months to make their case.

Or maybe the zombies will act like many people did before the internet — keep getting the digital paper out of habit whether they read it or not.

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The present and future of press freedom in Trump’s America

Amy Goodman. Photo (cc) via "Democracy Now!"
Amy Goodman. Photo (cc) via “Democracy Now!”

Update: The charges against Amy Goodman have been dropped.

Freedom of the press is under assault—and it’s only going to get worse in the increasingly unlikely event that Donald Trump is elected president. Three related items for your consideration:

• In Mandan, North Dakota, journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! is scheduled to appear in court today after she was arrested and charged with “riot” for covering the undercovered Standing Rock demonstrations against an oil pipeline being built through Native American lands. Lizzy Ratner has a detailed report at the Nation.

As state prosecutor Ladd Erickson helpfully explains: “She’s a protester, basically. Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions.”  And: “I think she put together a piece to influence the world on her agenda, basically. That’s fine, but it doesn’t immunize her from the laws of her state.” I would like to know what North Dakota law prohibits the practice of journalism, but we’ll leave that for another day.

• In the Philadelphia Daily News, columnist Will Bunch writes that the arrest of Goodman, and the prosecutor’s contemptuous dismissal of her First Amendment rights, is a harbinger of what’s to come in Trump’s America:

It’s not happening in a vacuum. It’s happening in the Age of Trump, when you have one of the two major-party candidates for president calling the journalists who cover his campaign “scum” and “lowest people on earth,” and the as-much-as 40 percent of the American people backing his campaign are cheering him on.

• In the Washington Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan takes note of a resolution passed last week by the Committee to Protect Journalists warning that the press would be less free under a Trump presidency. As Sullivan puts it: “The idea: CPJ would make a strong statement against Donald Trump on First Amendment grounds—the kind of thing the organization had never done before. CPJ’s global mission is to try to keep journalists from being jailed or killed; but it hasn’t been involved before in politics.” (I gave a “rave” to CPJ on Beat the Press for its resolution.)

No president is especially press-friendly. A few years ago, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism” detailing the president’s overzealous pursuit of leakers and whistleblowers. I doubt that the woman Saturday Night Live now calls “President Hillary Clinton” will be any better than Obama.

But at a moment when our politics have gotten incredibly ugly—when a Republican headquarters in North Carolina is firebombed, and when folks at the traditionally Republican Arizona Republic are receiving death threats for endorsing Hillary Clinton—the last thing we need is a president who seems determined to whip up hate and violence against the press.

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