International Growth in the Digital Publishing Market

Digital publishers are increasingly turning to international markets to grow their readership. What does this mean for the future of digital publishing?

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News publishers have been facing a serious problem with readership, especially in the U.S. A decline in readership has led to a decline in revenue, which has led to financial hardship and even bankruptcies for many companies. In the past few years, we’ve seen a significant amount of layoffs in the organizations of both prominent and niche publishers like VICE, Vox, and Buzzfeed just to name a few– which is why international readers are now playing an increasingly crucial role in this dynamic market.

As Digiday reports, many prominent publishers like the New York Times have reported that most of their subscriber base consists of international readership. On November 6th, New York Times CEO Mark Thompson reported that 20% of their audience was international and predicted that their international customers would constitute at least one-fifth of the 10 million subscribers the news organization is planning on attracting by 2025. That is a huge amount. 

And the New York Times isn’t the only publisher seeing a significant surge in international readers. The Guardian also reported that their U.S. and Australian readerships only accounted for 14% of their overall revenue in 2018. That means 86% of their revenue is coming from other territories. With the significant boost in figures among other publishers, The Washington Post is also joining the pursuit to expand on their international readership. They announced the launch of geo-targeted subscription for mobile only in India for 99 rupees (that’s $1.38) per month on November 20th. Miki King, Chief Marketing Officer of the Post said “We’re very excited to make The Washington Post’s renowned journalism more accessible to readers in India, and we are continuously investing in ways to grow our readership abroad, and we believe this initiative will help us attract more subscribers from one of the biggest media markets in the world.”

With many of the media industries in other formats like Film, Television, and Audio aiming to grow internationally, especially with their subscription format, it’s about time for newspaper publishers to finally target global markets. With other publishers planning on expanding their content to international markets, it may even be necessary for publishers like The Times to hit some ambitious subscriber goals. 

However, so-called digital subscriptions are also still a relatively new concept in many international markets, which helps explain why some news publishers’ moves appear to be more about educating the market than driving maximum short-term revenue. The New York Times’ international subscriber base has seen a major bump since 2012 with most of the growth coming from their U.S. news and political content. Despite growth from their main political content, they decided to change their approach somewhat. In September, the Times created The Times en Español, which is a localized version of their original stories that are in Spanish every day. Times en Español had been a distinct product that create more engagement with subscribers thus leading them to release French and Chinese editions.

This trend of localizing stories has translated to different industries including films, TV, and audio. Netflix for instance has capitalized on this market as they’ve released localized content in India to drive their subscription base in that region. Wondery, a podcast publisher, has been a huge proponent of the localization in the audio space where they’ve released different language versions of their most famous podcast, “Dr. Death”.

Localization has also led to changes in brand advertising campaigns. Times’ competitor, The Guardian launched its first brand advertising campaign “Hope is Power” this past September. The messaging in the ads, which ran in mediums ranging from out-of-home to linear television and podcast ads, were uniform around the world, and focused on driving consumer revenue as The Guardian aims to grow its paying supporter base to 2 million people by 2022.

The Guardian has also seen success using similar tactics on different projects in different markets. To date, The Guardian has raised money for six separate reporting projects, four of them based in the U.S. And 300,000 American readers have given some kind of money to The Guardian in the past 12 months, either in the form of a one-time payment or through a recurring digital subscription.

But building an international subscriber base still comes with a host of challenges. Just 16% of American readers have paid for news of some kind in the past year, and the percentages in most other countries are at about the same level, if not lower, according to the Reuters Institute.

As Digiday points out, there is also the added complexity of dealing with international payment systems. In the EU, for example, member nations all charge a value-added tax for digital goods or services sold to their citizens, but that rate varies from country to country, creating a layer of accounting complexity.

Overall, digital publishers will need to focus on growing their international subscriber base if they would like to not only increase their yearly revenue but also capitalize on their share of the market. Many companies are looking into adapting their domestic stories and ads into local editions to help capture these international audiences. If the NY Times and The Guardian are starting to see success in tapping into the international markets, other publishers are likely to follow. But will this lead to long term success? We’ll see how it unfolds in the upcoming years.

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