Using your website to increase print subscriptions

Dan Wilcox

Feb 14, 2019

In my previous article titled “Using your website to increase print and online advertising revenues,” I wrote that very few publishers of small and medium-sized publications are satisfied with the marriage of their print and online products. And that if I were to articulate it for them, the main question they share is, “How can I use our website to increase both my print circulation and advertising revenues?”

This article discusses the first half of this question and explains some circulation philosophies suited to small and medium-sized weekly publications with paid subscribers.

You’ve heard the phrase, “newspapers are dying.” People have been saying that for 20-plus years. Whether cause or effect, many publications began throwing in the towel regarding their circulation departments around the same time.
Some simply stopped picking up the phone to sell new print subscriptions, not realizing that they’re staring right at an oncoming train.


The answer is yes. Approximately 80% of a newspaper’s revenue comes from print advertising, and because advertising revenues increase or decrease based on print circulation, the primary purpose of your newspaper website should be to sell more print subscriptions. When you gain print subscribers, you gain print advertisers, your main source of income. And when you lose print subscribers, you lose print advertisers.


Imagine standing in line at the grocery store. You didn’t know you wanted that Twix or Snickers bar until you saw it. The same can be true for your readers. If they can’t see your stories, how will they know if they want them or not?

If you’re only posting some stories (behind a paywall or not), or if you are completely hiding your stories behind a paywall (possibly in the form of a PDF/page-flipper), then this article is definitely for you.

Many publishers fear that if they put all their content online, it will push print readers to their website, resulting in decreased print circulation numbers. While this is a valid concern, it is somewhat wrongheaded because if their website was set up properly, they could actually increase print subscription sales.


A paywall is something that restricts the amount of content to visitors coming to your website. Some newspaper website solutions have paywalls and others don’t. Our newspaper website solution has two paywalls that work in tandem with one another.

One of the paywalls is a metered paywall, which allows the user to view the first few articles they click on for free. You determine how many articles to give away each week before readers arrive at truncated articles prompting them to subscribe or login for access.

The second type of paywall is a standard paywall, which allows you to make specific stories free that won’t count against the free stories counted with the metered paywall. Some newspapers use this paywall for free content like obituaries, etc.


Instead of looking at the website as competing with your print product, I’d like to compare our goal of increasing print subscription sales to a simpler activity… fishing!

It’s a pretty safe bet to say that when you’re fishing, you’ll catch more fish if you have more hooks in the water. The same is true for your newspaper. The more “hooks you have in the water,” i.e., current articles on your home page, the more readers you’ll attract.

The goal is to give potential subscribers a reason to frequent your website by giving a few articles away for free, while withholding most of your content in the form of truncated articles, requiring them to login or subscribe to read the rest of the article. Now that the reader knows what they’re missing, they decide they want to read the article, so they subscribe to the print edition, which gives them immediate online access to continue reading articles.

This method hits it on all fronts: Visitors to your website have a reason to come back (free articles), they can see what they’re missing (truncated articles) and you’re effectively using your website to increase print subscriptions.


Online access should ideally be bundled with every print subscription. You can charge a little more for it if you like, but charging more than a few bucks is unwise. While you may make a little extra money, your circulation department will be more efficient if your print subscribers have the ability to login and make account updates like renewing their subscription, changing their mailing address, etc. This only happens if you give subscribers online access with their print subscription. (If you have a Periodicals mailing permit, run all pricing strategies by your USPS rep to ensure you don’t violate any permit rules.)

A successful strategy might be to price your print and online combo subscriptions just slightly above, or equal to, the in-county print-only price, say $1 – 3 dollars more. Most readers will simply buy the print and online combo subscription because it offers them a better value.


There are numerous reasons why your articles should be in a database, generating HTML articles, not distributed to readers in simple PDF or page-flipper. Some problems with a PDF or page-flipper solution include having an ineffective sitemap; likely not having a Facebook “share” button or other social media interactivity; lacking the ability to have an RSS feed, which makes for a “clunkier” way to read articles online. All of which result in significantly less traffic from search engines and readers.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing a PDF, but it should be the secondary means of browsing articles. The biggest argument publishers give for only using a PDF to post stories online is time; however, I think most of you would agree that saving 30 minutes a week posting stories isn’t worth a decrease in subscription and revenue opportunities.

Another reason publishers might like the PDF or page-flipper is they love the look of their print product, but what they fail to realize is that when the general public is online, they tend to prefer reading articles in a webpage format.

If you have a quick and efficient solution that allows you to post your entire issue quickly, time will not be an issue.


Lastly, while there are exceptions to this (like students and snowbirds), unless you’re a daily, or your subscription prices are high, short-term subscriptions might not be the best approach. Some publishers offer one-month or three-month subscriptions; however, if the shortest duration readers are presented with is a six-month or one-year subscription option, most will still subscribe.

This frees up your time because you don’t have to convince subscribers to renew in just a few weeks. For this same reason, you should also offer discounts for two and three-year subscriptions.

Dan Wilcox, vice president and a partner of Lions Light Corporation, has over 25 years of experience in the newspaper business. Previously the majority owner of two leading industry newspapers in Alaska, he thrives on helping newspaper owners and managers grow their print circulation and advertising using their website. Dan now resides in Peoria, Arizona, where he enjoys spending time with family and friends, dirt biking, hiking, and playing pool. He can be reached at