NewsRewired: Tom Standage of Economist ‘Digital is not a zero-sum game’

I’m at NewsRewired again doing a bit of live(-ish) blogging about some of the talks that I find interesting.

Everyone wants to be The Economist because it has managed to increase both its print and digital subs over the last few years, and unlike most publishers, it has see its readership and revenue grow through the recession. Speaking at Journalism.co.uk’s NewsRewired conference*, he gave some insights into its success.

In the current environment, for any publication that acts like a filter the noisier the media environment gets the better you do.

Standage also sees The Economist brand this way that if someone was stranded on a desert island and had to choose one publication so that they believe they are informed that they would choose The Economist. That’s a great statement of how The Economist sees itself.

Their attitude to digital is that it is not a zero-sum game. About a third of their print readers are also using their digital apps. From their own market research, they realised that they needed to cater to their readers who wanted a digital experience for two reasons.

  1. Readers see digital as more convenient. The biggest reason that readers give when they cancel their print subscription to The Economist is that they don’t have enough time to read it.
  2. In their own market research, currently, readers prefer print to digital by a ratio of 80% to 20%, but asking them what they will prefer in two years.

Standage says:

We sell this content bundle, this feeling of being informed when you get to the end of it. That is what we sell. That is essentially the proposition. You can still sell this in a mobile environment.

Some observations: How many other publications have the clarity about what they provide? How many other publications have the clarity of the value proposition they offer?

Standage also gives us this nugget of golden insight. In the past, The Economist’s archive was hidden behind a paywall. The result:

Before 98% of our content was invisible to Google.

They have shifted to metered paywall similar to the Financial Times and the replicated by the New York Times. Any reader on the web gets 5 stories a week free to read. The Economist’s traffic actually went up. Some pay for a digital only subscription, but print subscribers get access to the digital content.

The metered paywall plus all access to print subs is a great model. You get users used to paying for digital.

He added this caveat. “This will not work for everyone. You need to know who your readers are.” He said that such a model would be difficult for The Guardian that sells most of their print copies through newsstands, and he said that The Guardian ¬†doesn’t know about its readers. The Telegraph is starting to build a database of reader information, but he sees The Guardian as behind in this effort. (Any Guardian folk want to take issue with that?)

He closed by saying that there is not one new model but many new models. However, we’re beginning to find some ideas that work. They might require a change to your publishing business – especially in getting to know your readers much more – but we have some elements of a working model.

UPDATE: Adam Tinworth has live blogged this session and adds other details, especially with respect to the media app economy.

* Disclosure: I conduct data journalism courses for journalism.co.uk