Do subscriptions only work for big brands like the Guardian? Dennik N’s success proves otherwise

The subscription business model is taking the publishing industry by storm. As digital advertising becomes less and less effective, many media outlets are abandoning advertising-based business models and putting up paywalls. So far, the switch to subscriptions has worked beautifully for bigger publications such as the Washington Post, the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal.

But what about smaller publications? What about publishers who don’t have powerful brands, audiences and newsrooms to help them churn out vast amounts of fresh content every day?

For smaller papers, especially independent ones, putting up a paywall is risky business. First, they need to be sure their audience is willing to pay for their content. Second, they need to know exactly what kind of paywall to implement on their site. Adopting a paywall can be complex from a technical standpoint, and choosing which articles to place behind the paywall isn’t a decision to be taken lightly.

However, despite these issues, smaller publishers shouldn’t write off the idea of switching to subscriptions.

Tomas Bella, Co-Founder and Head of Digital of Dennik N, a respected independent Slovakian newspaper and website, spoke to us about his recent success with subscriptions. Since its launch in 2015, Dennik N has managed to reach an impressive number of 33,000 digital subscriptions. In 2018, the number of registered readers hit 220,000, while website visitors have increased to 762,000. Dennik N has also seen its paid app base grow to 10,000 customers in 2018.

The thing that makes Dennik N such an interesting case is the fact that it doesn’t have a vast pool of writers. The company operates on significantly smaller resources than brands such as the Guardian, WSJ, and the Washington Post, and produces much less content. The people who run this organization live by old-school journalistic principles, meaning they invest in long-form content and put the focus on quality instead of quantity.

In a period of three years, the number of paid articles on Dennik N’s website has increased by almost 40 percent, and its audience seems to be fine with that. We caught up with Tomas on subscriptions, editorial decisions, content promotion and more – as well as the type of content that encouraged people to subscribe to Dennik N.

The editorial strategy that helped grow Dennik N’s subscription base

Almost all of the longer articles – longer than, let’s say, four paragraphs – are located behind a paywall,” says Tomas.

We basically have two things on our site: very fast-breaking news and paid content. If you look closely at Dennik N, you’ll see the breaking news section on the right side of your screen. We offer that type of content for free. We don’t charge our readers for breaking news. Everything else is paid. You get a couple of paragraphs to view for free, and then a paywall goes up and you have to pay if you want to read more.

Dennik N heavily focuses on investigative reporting. The company invests in producing expensive pieces that look at subjects in depth, and then covers them from unique angles. The publication also does a lot of reportages and interviews, because these formats work best for the business, generating a respected number of conversions.

For a couple of years, we thought hard news was what sold,” says Tomas. “We thought hard news was by far the best thing for subscriptions. As time went by, we started to experiment with a couple of other topics as well. For example, for the first two years, we didn’t have a sports section on our site. We didn’t cover any sports or sports-related events, so one day we decided to hire a proper sports reporter, and that actually worked quite well for us.

But it’s always a question of how you present the topic, he adds. We have a very fast-breaking sports news section, but we’re still not producing tons of articles per day. We’re doing one or two that really go into details and bring something new to the table.

This is the content that sells for us.

Tomas says they’ve started to test their approach with other topics as well, and so far things are working great. Recently, they’ve set up a successful lifestyle section on their site because the reporter who’s doing these so-called “relationship articles” is doing them really well.

Tomas says: “She’s working on the highest level of journalism, has a very rigorous approach to fact-checking. She’s covering mostly relationship pieces, but she’s really digging into them deeply. That’s working extremely well for us. People still want to read articles about marriage and relationships, especially when they’re written with a certain degree of professionalism.

According to Tomas, people are still hungry for quality reporting. What he and his colleagues are seeing on the Dennik N website proves that people still have the ability to read complex pieces that require time and attention. Their subscribers care about the topics they’re following, they’re interested in the story, and they don’t mind investing more time and energy into reading longer pieces if the content is worth the investment.

What’s going on behind the curtain: how to successfully measure performance and grow in the right direction

Instead of aggressively pushing out great amounts of content and chasing readers through every possible channel (like many publishers still do), people behind the Slovakian paper are doing quite the opposite. They’ve stepped out of the content race and have decided to listen to their audience. Now, they only produce material that brings value to their readers and profit to their publishing business.

The team at Dennik N don’t care about vanity metrics or simple browser events, they only follow information that gets the publication closer to its goal.

We mostly measure conversions and conversion rate, says Tomas. We’ve moved on from pageviews, and started focusing on subscriptions and conversion rates. Every morning, a reporter gets emailed a list of articles that were the best selling the day before. This is discussed at the meetings in the morning where we give bonuses for reports that are full of conversions. We never show reporters pageviews, because we believe it’s damaging for journalism if we focus on pageviews instead of something like conversions.

Tomas sees analytics as a crucial part of the process, but he believes everything should be taken with a grain of salt.

You don’t have to take action based on your measurements. In every company, it’s the same. Once you start measuring something, you start to think: This is actually important. This was one of the tragedies; ten or 15 years ago, we couldn’t measure anything but pageviews, so we started measuring pageviews. At the time, it was obviously connected to the business model of media outlets. More pageviews equaled more ads.

But we were very, very careful about this from the beginning. We agreed that ads were not going to be the core of our business, so we never went that way. Readers and reporters were asking about them: ‘How many pageviews does this and that article have?’ We decided not to tell them because we believed they shouldn’t concern themselves with such numbers. Pageviews is a bad metric. From our perspective, it’s better to not have anything than to have bad metrics that aren’t aligned with our business.

He adds: “We have a lot of analytics tools, but we’re careful. We’re giving reporters and writers access to only a limited number of metrics that we know won’t push them in the wrong direction, like writing bombastic headlines or trying to build up pageviews, or something.”

As Tomas explains, different roles in the news organization require different types and quantities of information to act on and track results. For example, managers operate with the biggest scope of numbers, while editors tackle more specific insights. The guys who are responsible for managing the front page see much more data. They also see the A/B tests, the click rates, and so on.

Subscriptions and why this model works for Dennik N

Dennik N is almost entirely oriented towards subscriptions. It’s the publication’s primary source of income. It still has ads on the website, but these account for only 10 or 20 percent of revenue. This isn’t bad, but it’s nothing compared with what it’s earning from subscriptions.

Tomas believes this split in revenue will become the norm in the industry, but it’s up to publishers to decide in which direction they want to go.

He says: “If you’re following The Times, The Economist and The Post’s formula, you’ll have a model where 90 percent of your revenue comes from subscriptions, and 10 percent from ads. Or it will be 50-50, or 70-30, I think it’s different for each publisher. If you can do one thing very well, if you’re really producing very high-quality [content], then you can actually earn serious money with subscriptions because people will understand the value of what you’re doing and they’ll be happy to pay for your effort.

If you’re on the other end of the spectrum, and you’re producing A LOT of content that doesn’t really go deep into the subject, you can attract a lot of clicks. You can become a tabloid and just write nice headlines and then obviously earn money from advertisements. […] Tactics that work for me won’t necessarily work for everyone else. Like, you always have one or two authors where anything they write sells a lot of subscriptions, but it’s very, very different for each newspaper.”

As Tomas explains, the only thing you don’t want to do is become stuck somewhere between these two directions. Doing something attractive and fluffy, but also trying to become recognized for your professionalism and journalistic integrity.

He also believes the subscription-based business model has opened a lot of doors for different publishers, and has actually allowed them to think differently. The disconnect between clicks and the quality of reporting is really high now, and publishers who want to stay self-sufficient and live from this business model will need to roll up their sleeves and do the work.

Publishers can’t cheat people into paying for their content. Instead, they must give them something of value if they want to keep them as paying clients.

After 20 years of struggle, Tomas believes we now have a business model that actually nurtures and preserves the quality of reporting. Readers will pay for the highest quality of journalism; they’re willing to financially support publishers, and give them room to write investigative pieces and do the hard journalistic work.

“I think this is great,” he says. “We shouldn’t be afraid to move forward with subscriptions. We should be happy that it’s happening. We have a much better fighting chance in subscriptions against Facebook, Google and similar companies, because we can produce high-quality articles and they can’t. They can attract people in terms of clicks, but we’re better at providing them with higher-quality information. I think we’re moving in a direction that’s better for journalism and media as well.”

Thanks, Tomas! We definitely think so, too.

***If you’re interested in finding out more about how Content Insights can help you successfully move towards the subscription model with its editorial intelligence tool, contact us today and request a demo.

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