Here’s where it gets tricky, though. Web browsers will likely always be popular, because the larger walls of the Internet have been permanently torn down (AOL can attest to that) and people want all that free content to which those browsers provide access. News outlets’ Web sites are currently the path of least resistance to their work. What publishers must realize, then, is that the golden egg of the “revolution” is not that e-readers offer a second chance to monetize digital content on mobile devices alone, but rather digital content on all platforms. Web sites must be pulled into the equation. “As a publisher, you’re going to have to figure out what you want to do because you can’t give it away for free one place and charge in another,” Squires says.
If consumers are willing to pay for content, then the next question is how to structure the pricing for a store that services a range of devices and publications. Next Issue Media, Skiff, and a number of individual media companies are talking a lot about single-copy and subscription models with one price for access to content for all your devices, mobile or otherwise. By offering this news bundle, outlets would, in essence, be creating a valuable new service—the multiplatform, single subscription—rather than just suddenly charging for an old one that used to be free. This digital subscription might also be bundled with the print edition, but for the foreseeable future news outlets are likely to go with some sort of tiered subscription structure with options for print-only, digital-only, or “everything.”
The Wall Street Journal has used such a system to become the largest circulation daily in the country. The weekly subscription to its iPad app is $3.99 (but is available to subscribers free for a limited time), compared to $2.69 for print and online, $2.29 for print only, and $1.99 for online only. Its Kindle subscription runs $14.99 per month, a bit cheaper than its iPad app. (The Journal sidesteps sharing subscription revenue with Apple by making its app free and requiring customers to pay the Journal directly to register to use it, which is ingenious if cumbersome.) Amazon doesn’t release newspaper subscription numbers, but the Journal recently disclosed that it has 64,000 iPad subscribers and 15,000 Kindle subscribers, compared to its daily print circulation of nearly 2 million.
That’s probably a high benchmark—many publications have only a couple hundred e-reader subscribers. Official, industry-wide statistics on e-reader subscribers are scarce, but these numbers are sure to rise, perhaps dramatically. Also, in order to maintain the optimal balance between quantity and “quality” of their readers and viewers, news outlets will likely have to keep some content—especially short, breaking-news updates—outside of their digital paywalls, as The Wall Street Journal does now.
At ten to twenty dollars per month, on average, subscriptions won’t add up to much, especially if publishers are not able to regain some modicum of control over pricing (whether through the so-called agency model with third-party retailers or through their own stores). Moreover, surveys conducted by Forrester Research have shown that consumers expect a 40 to 50 percent discount on the price of yearlong subscriptions and single issues relative to print editions.
But subscriptions have never paid the bills for newspapers. Advertising, of course, was the moneymaker, and this is the major shortcoming of the Kindle and its e-paper ilk. Once you’ve got the infrastructure and the subscription system in place, you need to crack the ad problem. The fact that no model exists to get ads onto these devices has left many media companies that have worked with Amazon angry and frustrated, and despite repeated promises that such capability is on its way, nobody is sure when it will arrive.