The AFR paywall numbers – not as bad as you’d think, but not as impressive as they claim

I must confess, I felt somewhat cynical when Fairfax Media sent out a press release yesterday offering for the first time clues about how the AFR’s long established pay wall is faring.

Cynical because the timing seemed designed to draw attention away from yet another decline in its print circulation.

And also because the number seemed so darned low.

But I am, I confess, beginning to come around slightly.  

The bad news is that 6711 subscribers in a country with a population of nearly 23m is not great, even if (and I stress the word if) they are paying $1140 a year each. That would amount to around $7.6m a year.

By comparison, the somewhat less generously resourced Crikey currently boasts 17,352 subscribers. Based on its “vanilla” sub rate of $145 a year, that would be subs revenue of $2.5m although I suspect the actual number would be a bit lower.

And of course, that’s not an entirely realistic comparison, as the AFR has not only much bigger costs, but print revenues too, which Crikey does not. Based on its latest circulation numbers, the AFR’s cover revenue would be around $67m a year at best. That’s not taking into account printing and distribution costs, and before we even begin to talk about the cost of the journalism.

But given that print circulation is still nine or ten times the AFR’s digital revenue, the paywall starts to look like a failure. Particularly since the small online traffic means that digital advertising revenue would be negligible, and it’s taken ten years or so to get to this point.

But there is a bright spot – that’s the 53% year-on-year increase in digital subscribers the company claims. One way of looking at it is that although it lost 2737 weekday print sales in the latest audit round, it put on 2300 or so digital subscribers. If that trend continues, there would be a point where the digital subscribers overtook the print subscribers, and the AFR still has a business model.

Which would be impressive, considering what an annoying user expierence the AFR’s site currently is. But imagine what the take up would be like if the site became a pleasure to use.

The positive outlook relies on a couple of big assumptions. First that the claimed 53% increase is true. And second that growth continues at this rate.

(10.15am update: Fairfax insists that the 53% figure is accurate and reflects the number that is reported to the board; and that the growth rate is continuing.)

If so, the AFR’s digital audience would grow to the point where it would actually be big enough to interest advertisers. And that same virtuous circle that mass market newspapers used to enjoy would begin again.

For now though, the AFR’s number does not prove one side of the paywall debate or the other.

It’s too big to write off as a total failure, and too small to have anyone celebrating the salvation of journalism

Tim Burrowes


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.