Why news publishers are using non-news content to hook readers

Call it the post-Trump slump or the bubble bursting on subscription mania: News publishers are starting to see and feel the decline of traffic and the subsequent slowdown of subscription sign-ups as of late. 

But as traffic diverts from breaking news coverage, other non-news verticals are seeing an uptick in interest from readers who are now willing to dedicate more time to hobbies and special interests. 

“If you were to look at the stories that drove the most subscriptions in 2020 versus the stories that drove the most subscriptions in 2021, you’d see more stories that are lifestyle and general interest in 2021, whereas 2020 was more politics and COVID,” said Nick Thompson, CEO of The Atlantic. 

Some publishers, like Gannett, Salon and The Atlantic, have not only noted these changes, but have begun acting on those reader impulses to hopefully drive traffic back to other areas of their sites in order to build loyalty and convince those readers to become paid subscribers. Among the actions they’ve taken are creating content specific landing pages and investing in producing more stories for those subjects, as well as closely tracking which portion of readers are returning to those categories. 

“At the very beginning of the quarantine days, people were absolutely coming to Salon to find out information about COVID-19. [But] we noticed that after those articles were consumed, people seemed to be more likely than not to click on something comforting,” said Justin Wohl, chief revenue officer at Salon. 

In early 2021, Wohl’s team decided to take the early stages of its food content vertical, which primarily featured licensed content, and turn it into a more established part of the site. Since then, Ashlie Danielle Stevens was promoted in May to deputy food editor from food and culture writer to focus entirely on food coverage. And Salon’s managing editor Joseph Neese has been tasked with growing this vertical and managing and the output of about four articles per week for the vertical, Wohl said. Specific widgets were also created for the CMS to format recipe instructions.

“Seeing an increase in the percentage of return readership that we have in any given month is a success metric for us that we’re looking at with our editors each month,” said Wohl. 

On average, 11% of Salon’s return readership navigated directly from food content in 2021 and 20% of all pageviews came from food content, Wohl said. From a revenue standpoint, the RPMs (revenue generated per thousand pageviews) of food content is 15% higher than the site average and 30% higher than news and politics coverage, Wohl added. 

Those return readers become particularly attractive candidates to sell subscriptions to, which is a secondary goal for Wohl’s team. The revenue per user from a subscriber far exceeds the revenue per user from ads, he said, but declined to share exactly how much RPU increases. Currently, Salon relies on programmatic advertising for nearly 100% of its total revenue. While Wohl said he doesn’t expect subscriptions to ever grow to upwards of 15% of revenue, that subscription revenue could help the company to offset the dip in programmatic buys that Salon experiences every year in the first quarter. 

On average, Salon receives 10 million unique monthly users, according to internal metrics, and less than 1% of that readership is a paid subscriber, but he added that the goal is to increase that number to 3-4% over the next couple years.

Meanwhile, The Atlantic has noticed that lifestyle and general interest content — particularly coverage for its ongoing “happiness” vertical — has been particularly successful in converting subscribers, Thompson said, though did not share conversion metrics for this content. And while this trend has been identified, it has not been turned into a deliberate strategy for furthering its subscription business. 

What has been done, Thompson said, is testing the site’s recirculation algorithm — the formula for suggesting which articles a reader should click on next in the side bars and below a story — because data shows that readers who visit more than one vertical are more likely than not to subscribe. No one test has successfully yielded impactful results, but it is an area that The Atlantic will continue experimenting with, he added. 

In 2022, Gannett’s USA Today Network is leaning into special interest coverage as well by producing topic-specific landing pages, such as true crime and health and wellness, that will round up decades’ worth of content on a topic or category that readers can peruse. Some of these content verticals will be free to all readers, but Mayur Gupta, chief marketing officer of Gannett, said many will also be paywalled products that are aimed at converting readers at known points of interest. 

“We have a massive portfolio of content that has an infinite shelf life, unlike hard news that has a very short shelf life,” said Gupta. “So a big focus is how do we create a destination where our users can come and discover these relevant topics, which are timeless,” in order to drive reach and awareness of the publishers’ content verticals and areas of coverage, not just news. 

Based on Gannett’s earnings report for the third quarter of 2021, digital-only subscriptions accounted for $25.7 million in revenue that quarter, up 27% year over year from the third quarter in 2020. The company also ended September 2021 with about 1.5 million total digital-only subscriptions, according to the last earnings report, but the goal for the end of the year was to hit upwards of 1.7 million. 

Gannett also launched niche, subscriber-only verticals — including its USA Today Sports+ content and app ($4.99 per month) and its crossword puzzle offering ($2.99 per month) — that home in on readers who are willing to pay specifically for content about those special interests. Those subscriptions are tied to each vertical and don’t extend to all of USA Today, for example. The company has not disclosed the total number of subscribers to the Sports+ and crossword verticals.

The idea is to eventually introduce an umbrella subscription that will cover all of USA Today Networks’ offerings, bridging the gap between special interest readers and news readers and encouraging them to interact with all of the publisher’s content. 

The New York Times announced a similar plan during its full year 2021 earnings call earlier this month that talked about bundling the Times with its newly acquired sports brand The Athletic. This will not only bring sports readers into the Times’ ecosystem, but will likely better lock-in readers during slow news cycles or in sports off-seasons.







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