Digital subscriptions revenue is forecast to be paying for most of the i’s editorial budget within four years, according to editor Oly Duff.
The i began introducing digital subscriptions around 20 months ago and reader revenue is proving to be a “healthy, sustainable model”, Duff told Press Gazette.
Digital subscriptions, which are now driving all commissioning and ideas at the i, overtook print subscriptions about three months ago. According to ABC digital editions now total 25,733 – giving i daily print and digital sales of 155,000.
Digital subscriptions revenue, which is "slightly ahead" of what was expected at this point, has begun overtaking the money made from online advertising.
This is alongside "thriving" print revenue that Duff "confidently" predicted would continue to see growth for years to come.
From metered to dynamic online paywall
The i's digital reader revenue strategy began with a simple unmetered paywall restricting access to some locked content such as subscriber-only newsletters. Since then, it has evolved into a dynamic paywall built on Piano's propensity modelling system which tracks user recency, frequency and volume.
"We're offering deeper reads here and we think it's fair to ask people to pay for it," Duff told Press Gazette.
The addition of digital subscriptions is adding to an already strong reader revenue base that in 2020 saw three-quarters of revenue come from newsstand sales, print subscriptions and the i's two apps.
"That strategy of digital subs is in its early stages but it's working despite the difficult economic backdrop in the UK and the fragmentation in the news industry," Duff said.
"It's working, basically, because we've got deep long-term investment in the quality of the journalism."
The i was bought by Lord Rothermere's DMGT, which also owns the Mail titles, Metro and New Scientist, in November 2019. It has always been profitable and, Duff said, this is forecast to continue.
Investment from DMGT has led to the i almost doubling the size of its editorial team from 85 to 150 since Duff last spoke to Press Gazette in October 2020.
Four owners in ten years
The i was launched as a cut-price sister digest title to The Independent on 26 October 2010 and is now on its fourth owner.
Duff, who was head of news on the paper's launch and has been editor since June 2013, admitted it had "not always been plain sailing".
The Independent's owner Evgeny Lebedev launched the i and Duff praised his "courage and imagination to launch a new UK newspaper.
"Obviously some rivals questioned his sanity, but he backed it with marketing when the future of it was 50/50."
But when Lebedev closed the print edition of The Independent in 2016 he decided to also sell the i, which at the time had a small team and not much resource to grow.
The next owner was Johnston Press, which also ran the likes of The Scotsman and The Yorkshire Post but had a "horrific pile of debt" (£220m by 2018). This period had ups and downs, Duff said.
"They recognised the potential for i, they kickstarted growth for i, they launched the website.
"The reality for everyone who worked for the business was that the debt was a big distraction. There was a millstone round everyone's necks and some really good long term plans could get overtaken by urgent short term needs."
After Johnston Press went into a pre-pack administration in 2018, it was bought by a consortium of its debt investors led by US hedge fund Goldentree Asset Management. Duff described this as a "tough time" and a "really weird hiatus".
"It's fair to say we haven't stayed in touch," he said of the i's third owner.
This experience has made Duff appreciate the ownership of DMGT, which has been in the news business for almost 130 years and, he said, is happy to take a long-term view.
"If you work for an organisation that makes short-term decisions, well, there are a lot of short-term headwinds out there and if that's the sort of organisation you work for, you're going to suffer, you may not survive, but certainly some of that healthy journalism won't survive."
Duff also said: "Some other owners, you get chucked into a brand soup - little distinctive content of your own, or less affinity or understanding of the individual brands, the audiences, the need to give those audiences what they want. Some media owners, as we've seen, are not necessarily the most stable organisations themselves.
"What we've had at DMGT is real editorial independence, investment in journalism, stable ownership and - a really big thing this - that deep understanding of distinct audiences."
Who are i readers and why do they subscribe?
The i has evolved beyond its original premise as a digest of the day's news. Now, Duff said, "you've got much deeper reporting, you've got more feature journalism, and so that's proved popular with our existing readers as well as to readers who come to us when they previously read, you know, The Times or The Guardian".
The i carried out subscriber research this summer, finding that politically the biggest group of i subscribers are in the centre, followed by left of centre, then centre right, then the left, according to Duff.
Most digital subscribers are under 40, while the average age in print is in the low to mid 50s. And the website is slightly male-dominated while Apple News, the i's biggest external platform, skews female.
In the UK, 85% of subscribers are outside London in print and 80% are outside the capital online. And overall 74% are in the UK with 10% in the US.
Duff said the research had confirmed i readers' two big priorities: quality columnists with a diversity of views, and a commitment to non-partisan and "no bullshit coverage" that nonetheless avoids the trap of "bland BBC balance".
The i is the only UK national newspaper that has never endorsed a political party - but Duff stressed this does not mean it is always "fence sitting like the BBC can be: 'on the one hand on the other'. If you give everyone an equal voice you could tie yourself up in knots."
Instead, he said: "We're going to hold all political parties to account. We're going to kick all of the shins. We're not friends with any of them. We're not interested in being popular in Westminster."
"Our readers trust us to tell it to them straight and the only way to do that is through real editorial independence, where you're free from political baggage," Duff added. "That is a weakness for quite a few of our rivals. And you're free from proprietorial influence as well - that's really important."
Duff said DMGT chairman Lord Rothermere, who took the business private in 2021, is "known for letting editors edit. He's done exactly that with i. I don't run our coverage past anyone. I never will. We don't need to... He just wants to know at the top level, what's the business strategy? Do you have the people you need to deliver it brilliantly, if not find them and then crack on with it.
"Some of his political views probably don't chime perfectly with the editorials in his newspapers, but I don't know because he's never imposed them on me."
The research, Duff said, found a market of 2.2 million people in the political centre "who are likely to take out a digital news subscription who value nonpartisan coverage and intelligent opinion and they aren't currently happy with what other newsbrands offer".
Subscribers come to the i's website for news, they discovered, and stay for opinion, lifestyle, culture and sport. The biggest rival for attention in the UK news market is the BBC "but there are some opportunities in areas of their coverage that the i does quite well on", Duff said.
He added that the research found Guardian readers also present a potential opportunity: "There's a perception The Guardian can be a bit of an echo chamber on the left, some of its coverage can be slightly biased. And this is not me saying this."
The i is shortlisted four times in this year's British Journalism Awards: columnist Ian Birrell in the Comment Journalism category, Jessie Hewitson and Callum Mason separately in Personal Finance, and freelance Phoebe Smith in part for work for the i in Travel Journalism.
Duff also highlighted some of the i's other journalists and recent stories, including:
- Dean Kirby's investigation into prepayment meters starting in December 2022
- The Save Britain's Rivers campaign alongside fellow DMGT title New Scientist
- Reporter Richard Holmes' investigation revealing an alleged Russian intelligence asset living in the UK whose family used a homes scheme for Ukrainian refugees to join him
- Housing correspondent Vicky Spratt's "peerless reporting" on the housing crisis
- Global affairs correspondent Molly Blackall who spent three weeks reporting from a ship rescuing migrants off the coast of Libya
- Special correspondent Patrick Strudwick's work on how World Cup hosts Qatar treat LGBT people and date rape drugs being advertised on Tiktok
- Opinion writers such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Greg James, Emma Barnett and Susie Dent said to be particularly popular with subscribers
- As well as its politics, money, sport and science journalists.
Investment has 'halo effect' for i in print
Duff said the investment in "digital subscription journalism" has also led to a "halo effect" for the print edition, with revenues from the newspaper in turn helping "to fund our ambitions for digital subscription journalism".
The i had 23,935 print subscriptions in September, according to ABC - 19% of the total circulation of 129,133.
The iweekend Saturday edition had an average circulation of 174,308 in September, compared to 119,723 for the weekday edition. The iweekend has seen five months of month-on-month growth in 2023 so far while the i overall is seeing one of the most stable print circulations among UK national newspapers, according to Press Gazette's monthly analysis.
The i is the UK's cheapest national newspaper, selling for 80p on weekdays compared to 85p for the Daily Star, £1 for the Daily Mail, and £1.30 each for the Daily Mirror and Daily Express. On Saturdays, the iweekend is £1.50 while the Daily Mail and Daily Star are £1.40, Daily Express is £1.85, Daily Mirror is £2 and FT Weekend is £4.80.
Duff said they had kept the price of the i low because they are "grateful" for readers' support and they want to "insulate" them from rising newsprint and energy costs and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic as much as possible.
"That comes back to the commercial resilience of the organisation we're in as well - that was a group-wide decision," he added. "And so hopefully we're seeing the loyalty of readers as a result of that as well."
Duff is bullish on the future of print despite its continuing industry-wide decline, saying people have predicted its end for decades already.
"Yeah, sure, the print market has shrunk. We all know that. We're living with the reality of that. But print is going to be around for a long time yet.
"I mean, let's be clear: it is tougher out there than it has ever been for some... it's pretty stormy if you're not in a safe harbour.
"We all know that some of the historic revenue streams at some publishers have been shrinking. But print is going to be around for a long time yet."
He acknowledged the growing fight for attention online, with young people no longer visiting publisher homepages and i editorial meetings discussing the "half-second window" in which they have to grab new readers' attention.
"Despite that, the reason that British national news media are succeeding where they are is because of great adaptability, great resilience, imagination, courage," he said.
Duff acknowledged that "at some point in the more distant future, yes probably some titles that are around today will be digital only" like The Independent in 2016.
"But that's not going to happen very quickly. The reality is that lots of quality news media publishers in the UK are successful hybrid publishers, they're rapidly growing reader revenue at the same time as having successful print audiences who are willing to pay for that experience."
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog