News. Most daily newspapers (with the notable exception of the New York Times) just can’t bring themselves to unbundle their digital content, even though the warnings are getting louder. The UK’s quality national daily newspapers have chosen not to recognise that their digital services under-value a wide range of their best journalism by bundling it with content that millennials and others just don’t want and won’t pay for – just because that’s what newspapers have always done. By supposedly defending their print traditions, newspapers are eschewing the opportunity to build a sustainable digital future. And the challengers keep coming.
First, came the well-funded Tortoise, launched by former executives of the BBC and News Corp, seeking to provide only the kind of op-ed pages which The Times, Daily Telegraph and The Guardian do so well. It’s work in progress.
Now, the even better-funded, three-year-old sports subscription publisher The Athletic is launching its first operation outside North America. It’s preparing to challenge the established coverage of the UK’s richest sport, the English Premier League (EPL) football-soccer.
The scale of the EPL is best illustrated by the fact that its 20 clubs each receive more than £100m per season, just from TV broadcasters. It helps them attract many of the world’s best footballers which, in turn, builds the growing popularity of the EPL in the UK and around the world – and brings in even more cash.
The EPL is also a staple of the whole range of UK national dailies whose match-report supplements produce copy sales spikes during the nine-month football season.
The Athletic’s plans have been widely known for a few months but UK publishers have been shaken by how the US company has signed up a team of more than 50 journalists including star names and also established regional reporters who know everything that happens at their local EPL clubs. It’s believed to have poached The Times chief football editor Oliver Kay, its sports editor Alex Kay-Jelski, The Independent’s Ed Malyon, and the BBC’s David Ornstein. Everybody is expecting more star signings in the two weeks before the football season begins. BuzzFeed reported: “The Athletic…have been super-aggressive … they have gutted The Times. It’s the biggest shake-up in sports journalism since the digital era. There has probably been more movement in the last four months than in the last 15 years.”
Many of the journalists are said to have been recruited at double their existing salaries and it is clear that, as well as providing a wide range of football coverage in text, video and audio, The Athletic will provide deep club-by-club content beyond anything (so far) done by daily newspapers in print or online.
The Athletic was launched in Chicago in 2016 by Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, former employees of Strava, the California-based subscription-based fitness company and social network for athletes. They left to produce “smarter coverage and high-quality journalism for die-hard fans,” as an alternative to the traditional, advertising-supported business models. In the US and Canada, they now have 400 full-time writers, who each own shares in the business.
North American subscribers are claimed to be in “the low hundreds of thousands” with an annual “churn” of less than 10%. They pay $9.99 per month or $50 per year. UK subscriptions are expected to be similarly priced, i.e. about £8 per month and £40 per year. That is actually the full annual price of the UK Daily Telegraph’s digital “sports subscription” (launched quietly two months ago) so the impending UK competition has their full attention.
The Athletic is riding the wave of subscriptions media at a time when so many free, ads-funded services (including BuzzFeed, Vice, and HuffPost) have been cutting back. It raised $40m last year, valuing the company at $200m. It is estimated that the 55-strong UK team could cost an annual £4m. That equates to some 100k subscriptions, which seems achievable enough in a market where even weak tabloids are selling several times that, as much for football content as anything else.
Nobody is missing the point that the English Premier League has a huge global market through live TV coverage, international competitions, team tours, and merchandise sales. So, The Athletic’s first foray outside North America will help it move quickly into other international markets. The EPL will be the internationally-transferable content that pushes The Athletic towards the Spotify or Netflix model to which it aspires.
At a time when Netflix is spluttering a bit, ahead of a Disney-led avalanche of new streaming services, we cannot know whether The Athletic will, ultimately, succeed. But its gutsy UK plans are helping to wake up the newspapers that were once known as Fleet Street.
The EPL invasion has hardened the fears that increasingly ambitious digital startups may systematically target other strong areas of UK daily newspaper coverage – and accelerate the decline of these traditional news brands.
One London-based private equity executive claims he might fund a group of journalists to create another digital ‘vertical’. He reckons that business, the arts, crosswords (a la New York Times), and even politics might all be candidates for subscription verticals in the future. He also noted that the op-ed columns which were among the best-read content of many quality dailies were written by a relatively small group of journalists in each case: “Imagine if someone offered all The Times columnists the funds to market their journalism direct to readers at a low-price…”
That seems unlikely. But The Athletic’s UK launch should prompt daily newspaper publishers to:
- Create subscription digital products for their key content, perhaps including Sport, Business, and Politics. They could even enhance their traditional business by providing the new products free to existing subscribers (and even casual buyers). The Telegraph’s Premium Sports subscription at £40 per year (discounted by 50% currently) is a fascinating start.
- Build “pick & mix” subscription services where digital readers can choose which sections they want and pay accordingly. These specialist verticals could be bundled (yes) with complementary services (including TV/streaming), magazines and events. It could become a powerful new business model.
The UK dailies may eventually come to see this latest alarm as the one that galvanized them. But they’ve got to take the plunge.