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The future of online news: How to convert news junkies into premium buyers

In my digital first universe, such as it is, a premium business model for journalism just doesn’t include paywalled news.

Instead, news lovers should be enticed with a fuller experience of what drew them in. News, for a news publisher, is the equivalent of ‘content marketing’ for a normal business. It’s not something you ask users to pay for; it’s what makes users favour you with their attention.

However, I’d love to pay for access to a premium news site. News publishers must rethink how they convert news junkies into premium subscribers.

Examples of premium-only features for “news lovers”

Premium community for news lovers — The future of online news must attract “news lovers” (news consumers who craves a deep and total news experience1). The value proposition should include many (if not all) of the following features for premium-only users:

  • Ad-free experience (on all platforms)
  • Individual and partially customisable interest-based front page
  • Links to related archived material instead of ads
  • Visible outbound links within articles
  • Access to journalist commentary adjacent to articles
  • Free premium month for referring one new premium user
  • Database search of entire online archive (see The Death of Kitty Genovese)
  • Personal news archive for saved articles
  • Available to post comments to comment moderation queue
  • Community trophies for user engagement (become a super-user)
  • Super-user comments visible also to freemium users
  • Access to unedited journalistic research material for citizen journalism
  • Individual interest-based email sendouts
  • Priority options to send in material for consideration
  • Access to wiki section for article corrections
  • AMAs with journalists and editors adjacent to exclusive reveals
  • Access to share archived articles in social media (via unique referral link)
  • Basic analytics tools (media usage data) for citizen journalism
  • Free to publish classified ads
  • Access to extra lifestyle content (how-to articles, documentaries, blog posts etc.)

Premium community for business accounts — There are also many brands who loves news. If signing a premium account is hassle-free and gives awards all employees premium features, the value for a brand could be substantial. Here are a few examples of a better news experience for business accounts:

  • All premium-only features for brand employees
  • Business-specific front page for brand employees
  • Programmatic dashboard for placing targeted ads
  • Do-follow outbound brand links for better SEO
  • Advanced media monitoring services
  • Priority post box to send in content for editorial consideration (pay-to-play)
  • Pay to keep articles “never-archived” and always visible
  • Advanced analytics tools (media usage data) for brand employees
  • Token-based survey tools for brand employees
  • Indexable press release portal with do-follow links for better SEO
  • Publish lifestyle content (how-to articles, documentaries, blog posts etc.)

Prerequisites for a successful premium business model

Free news — All basic editorial content (the news) must be free and not paywalled. The premium offering is focused on features extending and deepening the news experience.

New ad model — The primary purpose of ads is to drive conversion of freemium users to premium and the secondary purpose is to allow premium business accounts to place programmatic ads.

Aggressive conversion objectives — The future of online news must learn to convert freemium users (news readers) to premium users (feature users) at a competitive level which means converting 1% of all unique visitors at a minimum2. This is a far cry of what the industry is capable of today.

New KPIs — Success should be calculated via a) growth of premium users (acquisition) and b) churn of premium users (retention) instead of free content reach and ad views.

Partner collaborations — Besides from offering premium business accounts programmatic ad placements, priority business partners for editorial collaborations should be managed by key account managers.

The future of online news is provocative for publishers

Why isn’t anyone adhering to a true premium model for news? This type of business model seems to be provocative for most traditional news publishers. As gatekeepers, they’ve been enjoying a traditional role of having passive news consumers. They’re not used to giving their readers so much power over their news experience.

Another aspect to consider is that news publishers are used to existing side-by-side with advertising, but they’re not used to offering business-to-business type services. The former is regarded as ‘normal’ while the latter is still being considered ‘ dangerous’.

A third consideration is that most news publishers are homeschooled in traditional publishing and they haven’t really been exposed to high-level online business models in highly competitive areas like e-commerce, fashion, or enterprise software.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash.


  1. Please note that this is a crucial bridge of focus between freemium and premium users.
  2. Quite soon thereafter, this also becomes a challenge of keeping premium users on a monthly subscription model (churn).


Avatar of Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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