FT editor and others say keeping hold of Covid subscribers next challenge

Editors at FT, BBC, Süddeutsche Zeitung and elDiario on post-pandemic challenges after 'good crisis' for news industry

News leaders including the editor of the Financial Times have said they see keeping hold of the digital subscribers gained during the Covid-19 pandemic as their biggest challenge over the next few years.

Roula Khalaf (pictured, top left), whose title reached 960,000 digital subscribers in December, said the FT was lucky it had started its digital transformation about a decade ago so its subscriptions business was “already very solid” when the pandemic hit and subsequently “continues to be very strong”.

Speaking on a panel to launch the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s 2021 Digital News Report on Wednesday, Khalaf said: “The challenge is to keep many of these subscribers because you can see it very clearly – as soon as lockdown began to ease and people started to go out they had less time on their screen. It is what you would expect.

“So you have to constantly think about how to continue to engage your readers. This is a challenge that we all face and that I think about every day.”

Khalaf went on to say she had been struck recently by how far behind the US many European publishers are in their digital transformations.

And her hope for the next three to five years is “we stop talking about digital transformation because the digital transformation would be a done deal for most of us”.

She expects a “massive growth” in digital advertising to continue, having seen the trend already carry over into this year despite lockdown restrictions easing.

[Read more: Publishers don’t have to choose between ads and subscriptions – they can have both, Financial Times CEO says]

Khalaf also hopes “print will still have a role to play because we have readers who want it, and I would hope our newsrooms are more diverse and can appeal to a more diverse audience as well”.

BBC News digital director Naja Nielsen (pictured, top right) warned of “challenging years ahead” as people, especially teenagers, leave their homes again and the period of online opportunity ends.

“The other thing is we also have to be level headed around [the fact] people were fearing for their lives, maybe they are still in some countries, and that is a damn good reason to look up what the rules or regulations or vaccines are.

“So what I think we have to do, all of us, is we have to be more curious than ever before about what the real needs of the customers or the audiences are and I think the reason why we have struggled maybe in the past decade is I don’t think we’ve taken it seriously enough, especially a lot of us legacy media, we’ve not been willing to do the transformations that were needed.”

Alexandra Föderl-Schmid (pictured, bottom right), deputy editor-in-chief of German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, said her title’s digital subscribers had doubled during the pandemic.

“But now we are faced with the challenge to hold these new subscribers and especially the young ones,” she said. “So I think that is the main challenge in the next few months.”

Despite this though she said she is “really optimistic and more optimistic than in recent years” despite the near universal fall in print circulations over the past year.

“This crisis was really a good crisis to some extent for media companies because this crisis was really accelerating the trend to digital subscriptions and now our challenge is to keep these new readers and we really have to concentrate on the young audience,” she said.

“I think this is also important in terms of talking about our democracy because if the younger generation is concentrated on conspiracy theories then it’s a problem for our democracies so I think this is really the biggest challenge for all of us.”

Rosalia Lloret (pictured, bottom left), chief executive of Spanish news website elDiario.es, said she was “quite optimistic” for the years ahead.

“I think this focus on reader revenues as the main model for the media is going to continue and I think that is good because media publishers can concentrate on the quality of content to try to convince the readers to become subscribers or members so I think that is a quite positive trend.

“And of course the main challenge is to bring the young audiences in.”

Lloret said the number of unique readers going to elDiario.es doubled during the pandemic, with noteworthy growth in female and younger readers.

The publisher also saw a 60% increase in its paying members (it has a voluntary system similar to The Guardian) and has now at the stage of trying to keep hold of those who signed up during the pandemic.

“It’s for us very important to maintain the engagement,” she said.

“For this reason we decided to implement a meter in our pages detecting our most loyal readers and we push them a little bit harder to become members… We are managing to go through these huge months in renewals and we want to be able to get to the end of the year with a little bit of growth.”

[Read more: Guardian claims a record 1m paying readers after surge in regular contributions and subscriptions]

Press Gazette coverage of the Reuters Digital News Report 2021:

Digital News Report shows effect of ‘great unbundling’ of local newspaper content on value put on by readers

Trust in UK news media boosted by Covid-19 pandemic but still languishing post-Brexit

Small boost in people paying for news, but overall willingness to pay for content remains low

US has least trusted news media in world: Buzfeed, Yahoo, Fox and HuffPost rank bottom

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