I've been a long-time reader of two international papers - the Guardian Weekly and the Economist. Over the last year, these two papers have had startlingly different performance results - the Guardian Media Group posted a record loss of $150 million for the year ending in June, while the Economist reported a record operating profit of $92 million in the year ending in March. I have played my own tiny part in producing this outcome. I used to buy both the Economist and the Guardian Weekly religiously every week - today, I'm a paid-up subscriber to the Economist, and no longer buy the Guardian at all. So, how did the Guardian lose my dime entirely, while The Economist converted me from a news-stand purchaser to a subscriber? The answer to the first part of the question is simple: I no longer buy the Guardian Weekly because most of their content is available on the Guardian website for free (even the crosswords, which I still print out and do over breakfast). I just have no incentive to fork out money for a piece of paper containing articles I've already read. The Economist has played the game rather more cleverly. Editorial pieces that are likely to generate inbound links are released for free on their website, but the bulk of their factual reporting remained behind a paywall. This alone would not have been enough to induce me to part with my hard-earned doubloons - if they stopped there, I would probably just have switched to free (though probably lower quality) alternatives. They really hooked me by offering a complete, professionally read audio edition, delivered promptly through an RSS feed at the same time as the print edition. This means that my subscription buys me about 8 hours of excellent audio content every week. By contrast, the rather quaint perk I would receive if I subscribed to the Guardian Weekly is a "digital paper" edition - essentially a series of large zoom-able images of the laid-out paper that I can't cut and paste from, link to, or even read comfortably.
There's been a fair bit of head-scratching by pundits trying to explain The Economist's unexpected success. Michael Hirschorn from the Atlantic just seems terribly confused, claiming that the Economist "has never had much digital savvy", and concluding inexplicably that it must all just be luck. Clay Shirkey thinks that the Economist is a niche financial news publication, and that its audience of "traders and business people" are willing to pay for specialist content when other people are not. Both of these opinions are quite wrong. The Economist has played a cunning strategic game with considerable sang-froid, and has shown much more savvy in producing monetizable online material than the Guardian (or indeed the Atlantic). Despite its name the Economist is in fact a general-interest international newspaper, with much more space devoted to news and politics than business and economics. The real answer is, I think, somewhat simpler: the Economist didn't abandon the basic rules of business - exchanging something of value for currency - when they moved online.
All of this reminds me of a recent blog post by Amanda Palmer, lead singer for the Dresden Dolls. She's fairly well known for shamelessly monetizing her fanbase, an attitude she says has roots in her past as a street performer. She makes a convincing case that artists have historically been insulated by record companies from actually having to ask their fans for money. Putting your hat out and asking for coins is seen as grubby - an attitude that is going to have to change as record companies exit stage left and the connection between performers and audiences becomes more direct. A somewhat analogous thing is now happening to many news publishers - the most obvious alternative to selling eyeballs to advertisers is to put on a good show, and ask your audience for money. In my case, that's exactly what the Economist did - they offered me a distinctive benefit, and asked me to pay for it. And, apparently like many other Economist subscribers, I was happy to.