Would You Pay to Read Entertainment News Online? Time Inc. Sure Hopes So
Since Time Inc. became an indepedent publicly traded company last June, executives at the nation's large magazine publisher have tried to convince Wall Street investors that it's quickly transforming into a digital-first media company. It's certainly made strides, introducing video series, increasing traffic to sites like Time and People and, just this week, acquiring sports blogging network FanSided.
But the company remains heavily reliant on print. During the first quarter of 2015, print comprised roughly 80% of the company's advertising sales, which is responsible for well more than half its overall revenue.
Now, to wring more money from digital, Time Inc. has implemented a paywall for Entertainment Weekly's website, the first in what will be a series of paywalls across the company's various sites.
Here's how it will work: After reading 10 articles on EW.com, the site will prompt visitors to register in order to keep reading. After the 15th article, they'll be asked to pay. They can fork over $1.99 for monthly access to EW.com and the digital replica magazine, $20 for the full year or $25 for a year's worth of full digital access as well as the weekly print magazine. Videos and photo slideshows don't count against the paywall, nor do articles accessed directly from social media.
Stephen Selwood, Time Inc.'s senior VP-brand marketing and revenue, said the company's goal is two-fold: to help better understand readers by asking them to register and collecting so-called first-party data on them, and to bring on more paying customers.
Time Inc. could use the money. Despite digital gains, its overall revenue has declined steadily, falling 9% year-over-year in the first quarter to $680 million.
But paywalls are a tough slog for publishers, and only a few have succeeded in getting people to pay for content online. For the most part, they're business publishers, like Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times has nearly a million digital-only subscribers, but even that organization, which is among the success stories, is starting to see subscription growth level off.
So why is Time Inc. starting with Entertainment Weekly, which cranks out celebrity-driven news, and not, say, Fortune, which seems like a more natural fit given its business focus?
Mr. Selwood pointed to Entertainment Weekly's large audience, some of whom are "super fans" -- people who visit regularly to read about their favorite TV shows and celebrities. EW.com attracted 20 million unique visitors in April on desktop and mobile devices, a 49% year-over-year increase, according to ComScore.
"Maybe there's a Comic Con fan pass that we bundle it with or a 'Game of Thrones' fan pass that broadens beyond the written content," he added. "There are options within the EW brand."
Among major magazine publishers, there are few examples of companies that have created a meaningful revenue stream based on digital-only subscriptions. (The New Yorker started a metered paywall last November. A spokeswoman for the magazine said in an email that subscriptions in 2015 are up 64% year to date. That includes print, print-plus-digital and digital-only. She declined to break them out by platform.)
Why does Time Inc. think it can succeed where others haven't?
"I don't know a lot of people who have tried it and tried it over time," Mr. Selwood said. "I think it's something that we need to try and we need to figure out what the best approach is."
Time Inc. introduced a paywall to Time.com in 2011 and People.com in 2013, but with a different strategy: Articles that appear in the print magazine remained behind lock and key, with web-only content freely available. The metered paywall will roll out for Time and People this summer, as well as Health, Money and Real Simple.
Developing a line of revenue outside of advertising, where digital ad rates are under constant downward pressure, or events, which is becoming crowded and often carries high costs, would be a welcome relief to any publisher. So Time Inc.'s progress will be watched closely.