The news subscription model has reached Spain

The majority of Spaniards do not pay for news, at least not in 2019. It’s easy to find online content for free, as most newspapers in Spain do not have paywalls yet. However, that’s changing. Newspapers are starting to put up paywalls in hopes to get a new source of revenue and a paying loyal clientele. 

Months ago, the largest newspapers in the country, El País and El Mundo, announced they would put up paywalls in 2019—a change now postponed until early 2020. Of the top six papers, the remaining four have made attempts at getting paying customers. The national outlets La Vanguardia and El Confidencial have started experimenting with subscription options this year; whereas the left-leaning El Diario and the media company Vocento have been at it for a while. 

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

Now that the two leading papers are getting skin in the game, we have to wonder—in a country where paying for content is not a habit, how will these news outlets manage to get subscribers? 

According to the Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute, only 10% of Internet users in Spain paid for news in 2019. The percentage hasn’t changed since 2015, says the report which was developed by our colleagues at Universidad de Navarra. In comparison with other countries like the United States, where 15% of users pay for online news, or Norway, where an exciting 34% are paying digital readers, the numbers in Spain are low. 

The reasons are multiple. First, readers can access most information online for free. Most outlets do not have paywalls, although 51% of internet users run into subscription offers weekly. In this market, the user literally does not need to pay for the latest news. Second, readers in the US perceive newspapers as institutions that serve a social function and deserve to be maintained—although that’s changing. Let’s remember The Washington Post’s motto: “Democracy dies in darkness.” There’s a sense of responsibility and a belief that newspapers must maintain the government in check. Spaniards seem not to think that way strictly and lack the habit of valuing journalism. 

Despite these difficulties, news outlets have tried to implement subscription strategies since the early 2000s, when the Internet threatened their business models. In 2002, El Pais, the most popular newspaper in the country, put up a hard paywall. Its traffic dropped immediately, allowing the digital version of El Mundo to steal its leadership position. El Mundo kept the content open, and, in 2005, El Pais had to do the same. Hard paywalls were not working: Spaniards did not like to pay. A few years later, El Mundo launched Orbyt, a subscription-only digital portal that gave the subscriber certain exclusive features. The non-paying reader still got to read the news for free. Thus Orbyt’s success has been mild. Both of them will have paywalls by 2020, but we don’t know the specifics yet.

More recently, the media company Vocento, which owns the right-leaning paper ABC and a number of local dailies, rolled out metered paywalls in many of its newspapers in 2015. Its subscription model, called ON+, includes seven of its local outlets and has garnered over 25,000 subscribers. This upcoming year their four remaining regional papers will join the model. On some of its metered paywalls, for example in the Basque papers El Correo and El Diario Vasco, Vocento lets the reader access five articles per day for free. Others are more porous. 

Finally, the national papers La Vanguardia and El Confidencial have started to experiment with subscription models this year—La Vanguardia with a metered paywall; El Confidencial with a premium service for subscribers. Their model will keep changing in the upcoming months when they collect more data.

Don’t take us wrong. We believe it’s about time newspapers in Spain charged for content. The problem we see is that they all offer a similar product, which can be found for free. News outlets have to give readers a reason to pay. Moreover, it’s a fact that, in the digital market, a lot of papers die off and a few big ones win (read The Internet has few winners; local newspapers are not them.) In Spain, not all these initiatives will have good endings. If newspapers manage to offer high-quality products to the subscriber, we can easily imagine a news market where the majority of readers pay for El Pais, El Mundo, or ABC, depending on their political leanings, while local papers perish. Readers want to pay for one, maybe two, subscriptions; not seven. 

Spanish newspapers will garner subscribers only through an improved offering. Although news consumers in Spain value the immediacy the papers provide, a majority of them say the content lacks depth and context. Spanish journals should offer them that: exclusive high-quality stories (long narrative journalism pieces, short documentaries, perfected podcasts.) Maybe then readers wouldn’t mind paying for something they can’t find for free.

The perfect example is the native digital paper El Diario. El Diario works with a membership model—users are encouraged to subscribe to support the paper’s role. When the newspaper published exclusive content on the widely publicized political corruption case “Caso Cifuentes” two years ago, 8,000 people signed up. Now, El Diario has 34,000 paying readers, a modest number that could keep growing with their exclusive news. 

In summary, the two kinds of subscription models we see in Spain so far include either a metered paywall or a premium content feature. While we wait for the market leaders, El Pais, and El Mundo, to roll out their paywalls, we should remember past initiatives. For example, the failure of hard paywalls; the collapse of Times Select from the New York Times; and the fact that in the big Internet pond only a few contendents survive. Either way, for any of this to happen, newspapers should step up their game, offer better content and design strategies to attract paying customers.

A last note—Spaniards are not used to paying for news, but they are growing used to paying for streaming services. Will that help newspapers in their quest for the subscriber fee? 

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