3 Most Popular Subscription Models Online Publishers Use

Subscriptions to newspapers, both online and offline, are booming. More than 169 million U.S. adults (about 69 percent of the population) read newspapers every month. The number of subscription growth that certain publishers have seen is staggering.

For example, the Wall Street Journal enjoyed a 300 percent increase in subscriptions, while The New York Times added 130,000 new subscribers in November 2016. Not to be outdone, Vanity Fair added 13,000 subscribers in one day, and the LA Times saw a 61 percent increase in subscriptions.

Publishers are taking advantage of the markets that are already primed for subscription services. The American Press Institute found that among the 98 U.S. newspapers with circulations over 50,000, 77 percent of them use a digital subscription model.

With the rise in companies like Netflix, Dollar Shave Club, and Amazon Prime, many Americans, especially millennials, are ready and willing to purchase goods and services through a subscription model.

Types of Subscription Models

There are three main types of subscription models used by online publishers: metered, freemium, and hardwall.


The metered subscription model gives the reader the ability to read a set number of articles before subscription is required. This type of subscription model is the most popular among the 98 U.S. publishers that API studied. Of these publishers, 62 use metered content.


The freemium subscription model comes in second, with only 12 newspapers opting to adopt it. Under the freemium model, most of the content available on a publisher’s website is free, but the premium articles or sections of the website require a subscription to access.


The least-used subscription model is the hard paywall, also known as a hardwall. With this model, subscriptions are required to access the majority of the website. Hardwalls are rare among the 98 newspapers studied. Only 3 newspapers use them, and that number will likely decline.

The Subscription Journey

What does the subscription journey look like for the three different models available? Each subscription models has its pros and cons and gives readers a different experience on your website.

The Metered Access Subscription Journey

The New York Times uses metered access as a revenue model. The Times gives readers access to 10 articles per month for free. Once the reader reaches their tenth article, they must subscribe in order to keep reading.

The steps to subscribe to The New York Times are simple and user-friendly. Readers open the Times site and access the subscription button. The Times offers several different digital subscription offers, ranging from $3.75 per week for basic access to $3.13 per week for all access. The difference between the two subscription models is that the All Access subscription includes the Times’ crossword app.

The Washington Post is another big publisher currently using the metered access model. It allows visitors to read 20 articles per month before they’re prompted to subscribe. Like the Times, the Post has several different subscription options for readers.

This subscription model is pleasant enough for the readers. It gives them a good idea of the quality of content the publisher creates and shares, and it lets them sample the service first to see if they want to pay for it.

The only downside is that by allowing the reader to view several articles for free, publishers may lose those readers who were looking for one or two select articles and didn’t bother to explore the site.

The Freemium Subscription Journey

The freemium subscription model, though not as popular as the metered access model, still has quite a few adherents in the publishing world. Readers that land on the publisher’s site are able to read as much free content as they want. This allows them to experience the publisher’s content without hindrance, with the exception of the small section of premium content.

Generally, the content that readers have access to under the freemium model include local news, classifieds, and wire stories. The proprietary articles like analyses and editorials are only available through a subscription.

The Guardian follows the freemium subscription journey. Visitors are allowed to read as much content as they want, but they’ll have to put up with ads. Digital subscribers are able to forgo the ads and receive access to the Daily Edition.

USA Today is another publisher that employs the freemium model. It allows visitors to read articles for free, but subscription to the publication comes with several perks, like a home delivery subscription and complimentary access to USA Today’s e-newspaper.

The freemium model gives readers most of the information they were looking for and gives them a great idea of the quality of content they can expect from the publisher. However, because the amount of free content is usually quite large, publishers can miss out on subscribers because readers aren’t interested in the premium content.

The Hardwall Subscription Journey

The hardwall model is the least popular of the three, but The Wall Street Journal uses it. When you land on the Wall Street Journal’s website and click on an article, you’ll only be able to read the first few paragraphs before you’re prompted to subscribe to continue reading.

The Wall Street Journal offers three different digital subscriptions. It has an introductory offer that boasts $12 for a 12-week subscription. Its two other subscriptions are $99 for 6 months and $278 for 12 months.

The Financial Times also uses a hardwall subscription model. Readers can visit The Financial Times’ website, but when they click on an article, they’ll be taken to the subscription page. The publication offers four choices for subscribers.

The hardwall subscription model doesn’t give readers much chance to interact with and experience a publisher’s content before subscribing. Most people will want to at least sample a few articles to ensure that the publisher is producing quality content that they’ll find valuable before they subscribe.

Are Subscription Models Staying?

If publishers produce content that consistently ads well-defined value to readers’ lives, people will subscribe. The content available by subscription must not be available elsewhere online or on the publisher’s site. People need to know that what they’re paying for is high-quality and exclusive. Only then will they hand over their hard-earned money.