Can journals live on subscriptions?

Some do. My long-time favorite magazine is The Sun. I bought one of the first issues Sy Safransky sold on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, in 1974, and found myself writing regularly for the magazine for several years after that, watching it improve with every issue.

Back near the turn of the 80s, Sy and his staff decided to improve the magazine by getting rid of advertising. They did that by becoming a non-profit; but that was secondary to the main purpose, which was to become an instrument for readers and writers, and not of one for advertisers. In other words, advertising was beside the magazine’s journalistic points. The Sun publishes for readers, and readers pay the magazine for good writing. Not surprisingly, The Sun’s subscribers are highly involved, contributing an abundance of letters, plus my favorite section: Readers Write (on a different topic every month).

My point is that it’s possible to have an excellent journal that lives on subscriptions, which are a value-for-value exachange. In the VRM community we propose another: PayChoice, which I wrote about in my last post. The idea here is for readers (or listeners, or viewers) to pay any amount for anything they like. The price is not under the seller’s control. Nor are other forms of signalling by the customer.

Direct support from readers (or listeners, or viewers) matters more and more for media where advertising contributes less and less. I’ve been thinking about this lately, as I contemplate a world with fewer (or no) newspapers and many fewer magazines.

Both newspapers and magazines have been supported in most cases primarily by advertising and secondarily by subscriptions. When print publications need to cut overhead, it’s the writers who get cut. Sometimes whole sections go away. The Boston Globe killed its Northwest section last week. Far as the Globe is concerned, where we live is now West. And how long will that last?

I pay the same for the Globe every week, but they deliver less and less, because their advertisers are buying less and less space. Yet I don’t read the Globe for the ads. I read it for the writing, the editorial content. Would I pay more, to take up the slack? Or would I look for the Globe to cut overhead other than just editorial? The latter, I would think. Still, either way, I’m a paying customer.

As a paying customer with an interest in seeing the Globe survive, I would like to know what the costs of producing the paper itself are. What are the costs of printing and distributing the paper? And what are the costs just of editorial? Never mind advertising for a minute, and what it buys. Just tell me what it costs to support the editorial staff, and to put the paper up online.

What would I have to pay if there were no advertising?

I’d ask the same of magazines.

Just fact-seeking here.

Where I’m going is toward where The Sun is today. I’d like to help publications survive by subscriptions and other forms of direct payment, rather than by advertising.

I’m not against advertising here. I’m just trying to pull the topics apart so they’re easier to discuss.

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13 Responses to Can journals live on subscriptions?

  1. justcorbly says:

    Back here in Wake County, the News & Observer also cut off one of its big regional editions last year. And the paper is shrinking, page-wise and staff-wise. But, it also increased the number of its weekly neighborhood pull-outs, sections which come close to being broadsheet shoppers. Those sections attract advertising from suburban businesses who’d never buy an ad in the big edition.

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  4. Mike Warot says:

    My question is…

    how much would it cost to keep Doc Searls blogging?

  5. Mimi Hui says:

    I’ve only recently discovered your work and it’s been a great addition to my existing stream of research around consumer behaviour + social media.

    Your question is an excellent one + like all thought provoking questions, I am curious to know a few more things.

    For starters, what exactly do you like about The Globe? Meaning, if it is purely for the content, which is arguably generated by the writers, would you still love it as much if their content was not aggregated by The Globe as a brand?

    One test might be to ask if we would follow a writer elsewhere if s/he were to leave for example, The Globe. Or have we trained ourselves to look at the content within a certain section of a publication?

    I worked at CondeNast many years ago and it was almost mind boggling when I realized just how much is involved with physical publishing. The writers and editors are only a fraction of costs. The capital involved with the physical fulfillment of the end product (be it newspaper or magazine) is quite heavy.

    If we were to highlight just one section of that process, we would find costs associated with the following:
    1) printing
    2) delivery of printed items to hub
    3) distribution of printed items from hubs to spokes

    Why can’t a publishing house eliminate all of the physical portions and switch to a pure digital play? Well, there will always be a period of time where where both co-exist. There is ramp up time to get consumer to the new delivery mechanism (digital). There will always be consumers who will refuse to budge. Maintenance of two systems is very costly. Transitioning is frequently painful in organization where people fear the loss of their livelihood. Training of the old regime to use new systems (when possible) is a costly process. There are many social factors at play. The digital and the non-digital frequently go head to head in a struggle for resources. Communication breaks down, silos go up. It’s not always a pretty sight.

    Then there are the consumer driven factors. People get their news from elsewhere. The massive influx of Web 2.0 companies that operate on offering RSS feeds and free data train consumers to take on an air of entitlement. A large portion of people do expect to get something for nothing.

    In short, it’s largely infrastructure, and not editorial, that is costly. Perhaps one question to ask is, is it possible to trim infrastructure in such a way as to provide valuable content to readers in a cost competitive way? And if so, what are methods for readers to discover the same content in a time efficient way?

  6. Pingback: BlogBites. Like sound bites. But without the sound. » Blog Archive » What would I have to pay if there were no advertising?

  7. Doc Searls says:


    It would cost nothing to keep me blogging. But it would cost me dearly not to blog.

    But money isn’t what blogging is about, at least not to me. As Rollo May said about writers, we alone among creative types suffer the illusion that the world really needs to hear what we have to say. 🙂

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  9. Doc Searls says:


    I started to write answers here, but decided instead to make them a blog post.

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  12. Kain says:

    Hi, thanks your for sharing the articles here.
    As we know, though it is the time of digital world, but we just live in the real world with all kinds of things, such as delicious foods, interesting books or funny stories and so on, just to make our life beautiful everyday.
    I like reading books rahter than readding news on the internet, thus I can not imagine the life as no one print books or publish articles on the newspaper…Maybe I am just a little traditional man.
    I always insist that books and stories can make my life more wonderful, printing industry help me a lot, our life will becmoe bad if life is without printing arts.

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