A glimpse of digital ankle from The Oz

So News Limited and Fairfax Media have now both lifted their skirts slightly on digital subscriptions.

Fairfax led the way last month with some detail around the digital audience for the SMH and The Age. Today News Limited followed with some information around The Australian’s digital subscribers.

If Fairfax lifted the skirt far enough to offer a glimpse of a shapely calf, News Limited is more modest, with perhaps no more than a glimpse of ankle at this stage.  

We learn, I think for the first time, that the initial target for The Australian was less than 30,000 paying digital subscribers. We  know that because the headline in today’s page 2 story of The Australian reveals: “Oz digital subscriber numbers exceed target”.

The paper says that there have been “40,000 subscribers to its digital platforms”. However, that includes 10,000 existing print subscribers who’ve been given a complimentary digital pass.

But what we don’t know is where those 30,000 paying subscribers – come from: they could have bought a print and digital bundle, they may have bought a subscription from within a tablet app, or they may be buying a replica edition. And of those buying a print and digital bundle we don’t know – and News Limited may not either – how many are existing customers and how many are new customers.

That means a single subscriber could be worth as little as $2 – for a single replica edition – or as much as an annual $413 for someone who takes the full $7.95 six day print and digital package and sticks with it all year.

So all we really know is that the 30,000 digital subscriptions are worth as little as $60,000 or as much as $12m to The Australian. For what it’s worth, I suspect the number will be to the lower end of that spectrum.

Prior to these numbers being released, my personal guess was that they might have sold 5000 tablet subscriptions. Which could be worth an initial $72 a year when bought through Apple’s newsstand. That’s a pretty modest $360,000 a year.

Even with advertising revenue against it, it’s not a game changing number.

And it comes on the back of an impressive marketing effort for the iPad app by The Australian including, I think, at least one cover wrap. That’s now been dialled back. Although the number of tablet owners does of course grow daily. But I’m not sure we’ll see more than steady growth from this point.

The paywall launch was more recent with many users still on their free trial, so I suspect those numbers are not yet settled, and indeed may slow down the number of people buying directly from within the app. It would also be interesting to know the percentage of people who convert from free to paying at the end of the three months.

I do not think, by the way, that these numbers will be a surprise or a disappointment to News Limited. I heard one anecdote that some staff ran a sweepstake on how many people would take the digital trial. The numbers, I understand, were bigger than any of them guessed.

But the more data that emerges, the more it starts to feel like tablets – or indeed paywalls – are not going to singlehandedly save newspapers. They’re just going to be one of many revenue streams.

Tim Burrowes



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