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February 29, 2024updated 01 Mar 2024 2:54pm

Paying for local news online: Paywalled US local news titles ranked

The LA Times and Boston Globe again top Press Gazette's list.

By Aisha Majid

“The local news crisis in the US is deepening,” according to the latest edition of the State of Local News in 2023, published by Northwestern University’s Medill School.

Half of counties in America have either one news outlet or none at all, finds the 2023 report, as many publishers are still struggling to find a model for local news in the digital era.

Some local publishers have hit upon a model, however, bucking the decline and finding success through digital subscriptions.

This second and updated list of paid digital subscriber counts at local news publishers reveals that there is a small but sizeable group of independent titles growing their paid subscriber base.

Since large publishing groups such as Gannett, Hearst and Lee Enterprises tend to reveal their digital subscriber numbers at a publisher-wide level only, once again Press Gazette’s list focuses on independent, local titles.

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Gannett, publisher of USA Today as well as some 100 local titles, saw paid digital-only subscribers increase just under 1% in the third quarter of 2023 after falling slightly in the first two quarters. Hearst’s newspapers unit, which publishes titles including The Houston Chronicle and The San Francisco Chronicle, was reported to have around 370,000 digital subscribers as of the beginning of 2023.

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The Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe again top our list of independent local titles with over 800,000 digital subscribers between them. Since the first version of this story appeared in September 2022, the LA Times has upped its digital subscriber count by 10% to 550,000, while the Boston Globe’s count is up 6% to just over 260,000.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune has held steady at around 100,000, while The Philadelphia Inquirer has seen subscriptions surge by 30% to 91,000. The Pennsylvania-based publisher launched a multi-platform brand campaign in October 2023 which it hopes will draw in younger audiences. Spokesperson Evan Benn told Press Gazette that it is still too early to discuss results, he said early indications are promising.

Not far behind, The Seattle Times, which is independently owned by publisher Frank Blethen, has seen its subscriber count grow 9% since our last report to 88,000 as of September 2023.

If you want to add your publisher’s digital subscriptions data to this table or think it can be improved in any way, please email aisha.majid@ns-mediagroup.com

Typical US publisher now has more digital subscribers than print ones

While growth for some local publishers has been impressive in recent years, not all have managed to make subscriptions work and some have lost paying readers.

After subscriber numbers grew 21% in 2021 growth slowed down for many local publishers in 2023, said Pete Doucette of Mather Economics, a business consultancy which works with publishing clients. In 2023, the median publisher’s subscriber volume had shrunk by almost 3%, said Doucette.

But despite some setbacks the trajectory is upwards, according to Doucette, who said that December 2023 was a key inflection point for US news media as the median publisher now has more digital subscribers than print.

Top-line digital subscriber numbers are only part of the story, however. Doucette said that digital revenue is not set to surpass print until 2027.

Revenue concerns have led to painful decisions at some newsrooms. In January this year, the Los Angeles Times announced it would be laying off 115 people - over 20% of its newsroom - citing the cuts as necessary because the title could no longer lose up to $40 million a year without boosting advertising and subscription revenue.

Publishers are under significant financial strain, said Doucette, but the industry continues to move towards more sustainable pricing levels for digital subscriptions as publishers increasingly think about their average revenue per user (ARPU) and move away from a sole focus on growing subscriber volume. The top decile of publishers that Mather works with, said Doucette, have an effective monthly ARPU of over $17. "So clearly, pricing is a significant revenue lever," he said.

Doucette said local publishers are also thinking about where costs can be cut - retaining things like the newsroom and local sales in-house, while outsourcing parts of the business such as technology, finance and human resources. He said that successful publishers are also expanding their digital products to align with what audiences want such as subscription tiers and AI-driven news games.

Despite an overall picture of contraction and consolidation across the US, Louisiana's largest local media company Georges Media Group hopes that its launch last July of a new ten-person digital-first newsroom to serve the city of Shreveport could provide a roadmap for sector sustainability.

Launching following community feedback that more coverage of local politics was needed, The Shreveport-Bossier City Advocate newsroom uses a mix of philanthropic support, advertisers, subscriptions and is built around a digital-first distribution strategy.

Kyle Whitfield, vice president of consumer revenue at Georges said that across the group, digital subscriber revenue growth is outpacing digital subscription volume growth, which he added is "certainly not a bad thing". The publisher, he said, is retaining customers even after the deeply discounted introductory offer ends.

While being sustainable through digital subscriber revenue is, Whitfield said, "a great North Star-type goal", diversification is bringing success right now, as the company has found additional success in advertising with video services and branded content.

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
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  • Other C-Suite
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  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
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  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
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  • Retired
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Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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