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Editor & Publisher - 2021-06-01

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When Transformation Works

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By E&P Staff

New study details COVID-19’S impact on print and digital subscribers Dr. Iris Chyi is perhaps most well-known in the industry for describing through data that the top 50 newspapers’ digital content was being perceived as an “inferior good” by their readers. She also compared digital non-replica news sites as “ramen noodles” and the print editions to steak, stating that people tend to perceive online newspapers as less likable and less satisfying. In her book, “Trial and Error: U.S. Newspapers’ Digital Struggles Toward Inferiority,” she challenges U.S. newspapers’ technology-driven strategy, calling for a critical reassessment of the future of the industry. In April, Chyi, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, released her latest report, “The Impact of COVID-19 on 20 U.S. Newspapers’ Print and Digital Circulation,” where she takes a hard look at empirical data on the impact of COVID-19 with these selected publications. Each newspaper’s weekday paid digital non-replica and print circulation data were retrieved from the reports filed for the Alliance for Audited Media in 2019, Q1 2020, and Q3 2020. Digital pricing data were collected from these newspapers’ websites. The report reveals that even though digital subscriptions went up by 64 percent between 2019 and Q3 2020, print subscriptions dropped by an average of 21 percent. Data showed that the average price charged for digital access is now $181 a year. The report showed massive in digital nonreplica subscribers during COVID-19. For example, the Orlando Sentinel grew 1,700 percent in 2019 from 1,319 subscribers to nearly 24,000 subscribers in Q3 2020. Other publications also saw sustainable numbers: the Fort Worth Star-telegram grew 288 percent (2,280 in 2019 to nearly 9,000 in 2020), and the Denver Post was next with a 187 percent increase (8,967 in 2019 to more than 25,000 in 2020). “Overall, each paper gained 16,000 subscribers,” said Chyi during a recent “E&P REPORTS” vodcast where she went into further detail on her study. “Total for the 20 papers, we’re talking about 321,000.” On the other hand, print saw a significant decline during COVID-19. Papers like the Arizona Republic and Los Angeles Times saw more than 20 percent decrease. Chyi called the numbers she saw “very concerning.” One of the more surprising revelations was that the median price for all digital access among the 20 publications is $181 a year, with introductory digital offers as low as $.25 a week, while seven-day print subscription price reached $1,019 (median) or $987 (mean) a year. The study concluded that the “shocking price gap suggests that it takes nearly six new digital subscribers to make up for the loss of one print subscriber.” “There is a strong attachment to the print product, and it’s reflected in the price they are paying,” Chyi explained. “If you think about it, it’s actually as expensive as an iphone; however. if your iphone lasts more than a year, it’s actually a lot cheaper than these newspaper subscriptions.” But print doesn’t have to die, Chyi said. Despite the “crazy price hikes,” there is no reason to drop the legacy project given the revenue prospects. What she suggests for news publishers is that now is the time to revisit their product pricing and digital transformation strategies. To learn more about the study, visit irischyi.com or contact Chyi at chyi@mail.utexas.edu.

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