Advertising still dominates the newspaper revenue model. Depending upon the particular country, it is not uncommon to see print dailies getting 70% to 80% of their revenue from advertising. In the early days of the digital era, when business plans were driven by “eyeballs”, everybody hoped to replicate the tried and true print advertising revenue model. Now, the collective hallucination has dissipated; a more down-to-earth vision prevails: publishers willing to preserve high quality (read: costly) journalism recognize they have no choice but getting their users to pay for it, one way another. The pendulum has swung back.

It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. You’ll be able to charge readers if you put yourself in a position to propose exclusive, unique contents. To do so, you’ll have to put together an strong line-up of professionals, as opposed to a blogger army whose output no one will ever pay a dime for.Next questions include: how much to charge ? Is it 10 (dollars euros, pounds), 20 or more?  What free-to-pay conversion rate to aim at? Can we shoot for 5%, 10% or more of the overall audience? How does a full digital operation look like?

Let’s dive into numbers for a back-of-the-envelope exercise.

First, assumptions: The following is based on my observations of markets in Europe (France, UK, Scandinavia) and the United states; numbers may vary but I trust none are widely off the mark.

In the print world, costs break down as follows:

Production, printing............25%
Marketing promotion.............20%

Now let’s move to a fully digital operation derived from a traditional one in terms of journalistic firepower and standards.

To produce it, we’ll settle for a 200 staff newsroom, with writers, editors, data journalists, information-graphic designers, videographers, etc. We removed the staff working on the dead-tree model. With 200 dedicated people working for an online operation, you can really shoot the for stars. Such a setup costs between $25 and $30 million a year, all expenses included. Let’s settle for a middle $27 million.

Production costs fall sharply as the carbon-based version is gone. The old 45% production and printing line morphs into a conservative 15% for serving web pages and applications. We’ll assume all other costs (marketing, promotion, administrative) remain at the same level.

The cost table now looks like this:

Newsroom...............27M$......40% of the total
Production, technical..10M$......15%
Marketing promotion....20M$......30%
Total Costs............67M$ 

Now, let’s turn to the revenue side.

First: advertising revenue. We assume a real audience of 5 million Unique Visitors per month. By real audience, I mean no cheating, no bogus viewers, reasonable SEM and excellent SEO. People come to the site, stick to it and come back. Each user sees at least 20 pages a month. That’s on the high side. By comparison, Google Ad Planner gives the following page views per UVs:

NYT.........15 pageviews per user and per month (distant paywall)
WSJ.........14 (some paid-for section) (strict paywall)
Guardian....14 (free)

20 pages is therefore an ambitious goal. I’m convinced it can be achieved through high-performance recommendation engines (look at what Amazon does in terms of its ability to get people to click on related items).

5 million UVs multiplied by 20 pages views gives (thank you) 100 million PV. Now, let’s assume each page generate a CPM (for several modules) of $20. That’s an average as not all pages yield the same amount: parts of the inventory will go unsold, but pages served to high value, paid-for subscribers will generate twice that amount. This translates into a yearly revenue of $24 million, that is around 5 advertising dollars per visitor per year.

Again: it will vary, but it is consistent with what we see on the market for high quality, branded, publications. (By contrast, even the greatest blogs only yield one or two dollars per user).

Two, subscription revenue. Since our audience is solid and loyal to the brand, we will assume 10% of all readers will be willing to pay. Make no mistake: that is the transformation rate a newspapers such as the New York Times is aiming at (it is currently at 1%, still a long way to go). My take is a general news operation will be price-sensitive, meaning the transformation rate with a $9.99 a month price will be significantly higher than with $15 or $20 per month; by contrast, a specialized publication is less rate-sensitive and can be pricier.

In my model of a general news product, I set the price to $10 a month, which makes the one-tenth conversion rate more realistic. Then, I factor in two items:
- 15% taxes (it ranges from 8% in the US to 20% in France)
- a 13% cost of platform including transaction, database, etc (that’s should be a goal as Google OnePass charges 10%); this line is distinct from the technical costs applied to the entire digital operation.

All of the above taken into account, a digital subscriber paying $10 month will generate a net ARPU of $89 a year for the company. Multiplied by 0.5 million paid-for users (i.e.10% of the global audience), this translates into a revenue of $44 million for digital subscribers.

The revenue table now looks like this:

Advertising......24M$...35% of the total

$68 million in revenue for a cost of $67 million (all numbers rounded), leaves a mere 2% operating margin. Nothing to brag about. It could easily translate into an accounting loss, especially since it will take a while to reach several of these goals: a 10% free-to-paid transformation rate, a high number of pages per viewers, both are several years (of losses) away for many publications.
But these are the only dials I set on the ambitious side; the rest (subscription price, audience), is rather conservative; for instance if you simply set the subscription rate at $12 a month instead of $10 — that is fifty cents per weekday — the operating margin jumps to 13%.
And I also set aside many things I firmly believe in, like keeping some print operation in the form of a compact, high-end weekly for instance (with a staff of 200, it sounds feasible), developing ancillary products such as digital book publishing, etc.

Once again, while I feel my numbers are well-grounded, others will find this little model simplistic and questionable. The simulation is aimed at showing there is a life after the death of the daily print edition. Success is a “mere matter” of persistence.

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