Wednesday, 22 July 2009

An open blog post to the Guardian subscriber scheme

When I first noticed the Guardian's most recent subscriber drive offering it's readers a chance to 'save money' I thought to myself, 'great - a nice incentive to actually purchase the paper versions instead of frequently reading the bits I like via my RSS feed for free'. Despite my love of technology I am still a fan of the newspaper format in its paper guise: it is portable, convenient and has established sections and routes for navigation - something which isn't always as workable in digital versions.

I've noticed quite a few Guardian pages are not yet optimised for portable browsing on devices like the iPhone, in particular one of my regular favourites from the Saturday edition of The Guide: What We Learned On The Web This Week (mobile web link here for July 18 2009). This is the message which awaits mobile browsers:

How does it work?

I was curious to see how it was organised given that most people can generally subscribe to their local newsagent to have a newspaper delivered, usually with a small weekly surcharge. There isn't much difference to this tried and tested process. Essentially, the Guardian will issue a book of vouchers which can be handed in to the newsagent where you normally purchase your paper and they will sort out the rest. Subscriptions are available on a monthly, quarterly, six month and annual basis.

There are a number of packages available:
  • Seven-day Guardian and Observer package: saves 33% on cover price
  • Six-day Guardian package (Monday – Saturday): saves 25% on cover price
  • A weekend Guardian Saturday and Sunday Observer package: saves 20% on cover price
If you regularly purchase the newspapers that fit into these pricing tiers then there are some genuine savings to be made. However, this is also the root of the problem...

Who still buys newspapers?

The year-on-year trends for national newspapers is a predictable one of slowly falling circulations and has been doing so for some time. The Guardian sales themselves were down over 3.2% when comparing June 2008 with June 2009, although their digital views were the best in the UK for that month, in excess of of 27 million unique readers. As we can see, newspapers are diminishing in reader presence and this subscription deal seems like a good incentive to stimulate the existing readership or to lure back lost readers.

I'm sure there are quite a few people who regularly buy newspapers, including the Guardian, every day every weekend, etc, and this offer is an ideal proposition for them. However, what about those newspaper readers who have long since abandoned their paper buying habits or who purchase specific daily editions? Is this still a good deal for them?

I would love to be a regular annual subscriber of the Guardian but I'd like a little more options in the editions available. I regularly buy the Saturday edition of the paper and frequently purchase the Monday and Thursday editions for their excellent Media and Technology sections (worth the cover price alone in my opinion). This costs somewhere in the region of £10+ per month - not a massive cost for the quality of the end product but probably too small a figure to qualify for subscription discounts - but only if I actually chose to buy the weekday editions. Like I already said, my RSS feeds do a great job of bringing those sections of the paper to me digitally and for free. I run a broswer with adblock plus installed too.

Bottom line

So here lies the rub, would a little more flexibility in the options available be beneficial to the Guardian if it means that I'd become a regularly subscriber? It's already accepted that the cover price of a newspaper accounts for much less than the products true cost. Some estimate that the the cover price brings in about 30% of the revenue with 70% coming from advertising sales. We all know that advertising rates have tanked in the past 12 months.

So what is more beneficial: the material costs of producing a discounted newspaper, delivered to subscribers via a flexible subscription model bringing in a fixed price or the risk of further dwindling sales whilst readers switch to digital editions?


Paul said...

It is a somewhat perplexing to find The Guardian taking this route, given that due to their ownership/financial backing they of all papers are less hit by falling sales.

They also place a huge emphasis on their website (which is up there with the very best of newpaper sites)- maybe this is an attempt to redress that balance.

I agree that the modern newspaper buyer may only purchase specific daily editions, like you I normally go for the Saturday edition and the Observer (as much as the Media section is worth getting it would be Friday by the time I read it).

What I would like to find out is who actually reads the actual newspaper - I know I read the supplements only. If I want news I'll read something else, preferably a publication that has some sense of how to write.

Rob said...

Hi Paul

Thanks for the response. I also buy a paper only never to read the main section of it until days later when it should be 'fish and chip' fodder.

I suspect it may be nigh on impossible to find out exactly what people do read when then buy a feature packed newspaper today. I seldom get the chance to read from cover to cover and do tend to dip into the favoured sections or supplements that I know already. Perhaps the 'shoot wide - catch some' targetting method of the broadsheet format is dead already, and that themed sections help to cater for a disparate and fragmented readership better catered to online?

I was listening to the Guardian's Media Talk podcast last week and Emily Bell, the editor for digital content, said she envisioned a day when the paper would be gone but the brand would remain. If that is he case then don't subscriptions to the paper based format just prolong the inevitable at a cost? Even if the Guardian is supported by it's trustee status mightn't that funding be better routed to establishing a digital future (or have they already successfully done that)?

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