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.

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The challenge of counting digital subscribers

UnknownHow many digital subscriptions has The Boston Globe sold? According to Globe spokeswoman Ellen Clegg, there were 45,971 “digital-only subscribers” in September — an increase of nearly 80 percent over the 25,557 who had signed up a year earlier.

That sounds impressive. But it’s a pittance compared to the numbers compiled by the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), which recently released a report claiming the Globe had an average of 86,566 digital readers for its Monday-through-Friday editions for the six-month period ending Sept. 30.

The difference is in how you count digital subscriptions. I’ve written about this before, but the AAM’s methodology is becoming increasingly controversial, as some readers are being double- or even triple-counted.

Here’s how it works. As Clegg says, the number reported by the Globe represents only customers who have signed up for paid online access through the BostonGlobe.com website, the iPhone app, the ePaper replica edition or an edition for e-readers like the Kindle.

If anything, that methodology undercounts digital readership. For instance, we pay for home delivery of the Sunday paper, which entitles us to digital access at no extra charge — and that’s how we read the Globe Monday through Saturday. Yet according to Clegg, because we have not specifically purchased a digital edition we are counted as Sunday-only print subscribers.

By contrast, under the AAM methodology you could sign up for seven-day home delivery of the print edition — and if you also regularly log on to BostonGlobe.com at work, you’d count as a digital subscriber as well. If you download and use the Globe iPhone app to check the headlines while waiting for the subway, well, there’s a good chance you’ll be counted again. Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab recently broke it down:

AAM wrote a blog post in May explaining that a paying print subscriber at a paywalled newspaper can actually count as two “subscriptions” if publishers provide proof that the subscriber activated their username and password for digital. And there’s no reason to stop at two: “each digital platform,” like an iPhone app, can count as its own sub too.

And in a considerable understatement, Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon — noting that the AAM methodology allowed USA Today to claim a 67 percent increase in paid circulation — wrote that “the new figures make many comparisons challenging.”

The good news for the Globe is that paid circulation more or less held its own during past year even if you use the paper’s own understated figures. From September 2012 to September 2013, print circulation of the Monday-through-Friday edition fell from 180,919 to 166,807, according to the AAM. On Sundays it fell from 323,345 to 297,493.

But when you factor in  digital-only subscriptions, the Globe had a paid Monday-through-Friday circulation of 212,778 this September, up from 206,476 a year ago — an increase of 3 percent. On Sundays, total paid circulation declined from 348,902 to 343,464, or about 1.5 percent.

The picture looks considerably brighter if you use the AAM’s figures. By those measures, Monday-through-Friday paid circulation at the Globe rose from 230,351 to 253,373, an increase of about 10 percent. Sunday circulation rose from 372,541 to 384,931, or 3.3 percent.

What is the most accurate measure? The AAM figures may be exaggerated, but it’s also clear that the Globe’s measurements undercount paid subscribers — especially Sunday-only print customers who read the paper online during the rest of the week.

My best estimate is that paid circulation at the Globe is stable or growing slightly. And though digital advertising is not nearly as lucrative as its print counterpart, the far lower costs of digital publishing should help John Henry and company offset the loss in ad revenue.

Certainly Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell must be looking closely at the Globe’s strategy. According to the AAM, paid circulation of the Monday-through-Friday Herald dropped by 9 percent, to 88,052, over the past year. The Sunday edition fell by 7.5 percent, to 71,918.

For newspapers, a digital break from the bad news

It’s hard to know what to make of the latest numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations given that the New York Times gets credit for a paid-circulation boost of 73 percent. Yes, it makes sense to add print and digital subscriptions together. But some of the numbers reported on Tuesday are anomalies that won’t be repeated once digital subscriptions grow into maturity.

Still, good news is good news. Thanks to digital subscriptions, the Boston Globe registered a 2.5 percent circulation boost on Sundays (now 365,512) and a 2.9 percent increase on weekdays (225,482) — the paper’s first increases since 2004. Those numbers, though, do rely to some extent on favorable ABC rules when it comes to counting digital readership.

The Globe reports 18,000 digital subscriptions. ABC gives the Globe credit for about 33,000 digital readers. The difference is that the 18,000 figure counts Globe readers whose only subscription is digital. The higher ABC figure encompasses those whose subscriptions include some combination of print and digital — “engaged home delivery print subscribers who access BostonGlobe.com at least once per week,” according to an email from Peter Doucette, the Globe’s executive director of circulation sales and marketing.

Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell has talked about a paid-subscription model for his paper, and I’d imagine that talk is likely to increase after Tuesday. The Herald’s daily paid circulation fell by 12.3 percent, to 108,548; on Sundays it declined by 6.2 percent, to 81,925. In its own story today, the Herald emphasizes the popularity of its free website, traffic to which it claims is up 25 percent over the past year.

One point the Herald does make in its rather snippy account of the Globe’s numbers is that paid digital circulation simply isn’t as valuable to advertisers as paid print circulation. That’s true, and, if anything, the situation may be deteriorating. According to newspaper analyst Alan Mutter, the share of online advertising going to newspaper websites dropped to an all-time low in 2011.

What that means is the question of who will pay for journalism remains as vital as ever. The newspaper business is proving that at least some of its users are willing to pay for online news. Will there be enough of them to make a real difference — and will they be willing to pay enough to offset the continuing loss of advertising revenues?

Those are questions that will have to be answered. For now, we should all be glad that the issue is whether the new circulation numbers are as good as they seem. That’s a nice break from wondering if the bottom is about to fall out.