News organisations are gradually realising that subscription or reader membership solutions are the only way of making a commercially sustainable digital news service work, what hope is there for ordinary magazines and radio stations in clawing back advertising revenues from Google and Facebook if even Yahoo has to throw in the towel? The near impossibility of advertisement-backed news and reporting has some important cultural and political implications. Since Exact Editions has been successfully selling digital subscriptions to magazines for over 10 years we think it useful to summarise some of the lessons that we have learned. Rather conveniently most of these crucial issues are concisely summarised by the Burl Ives Donut Song.

  1. Its written on the rainbow in letters made of gold. The most crucial point is that delivering a digital subscription reliably and consistently is something that readers and consumers will pay for. A properly designed web service delivers via this arc-shaped rainbow, web subscriptions consistently to all your subscribers. These subscribers buy their renewable subscriptions and these transactions accumulate gradually and they are made of gold.
  2. When you walk through life you will have no cares if you walk the lines and not the squares. Mr Ives was really onto something here. Walking the lines means giving full focus and attention to the editions and issues of which your publication is concerned, and yes there will be gaps whilst you stretch between your regular editions. The publisher has to make sure that the digital editions are at least as good and attractive, as complete and as beautiful as the print editions which have previously established the newspaper or magazine’s reputation. As Digiday puts it “push away from the trap of commoditised online news”
  3. Watch the donut not the hole. The thing is, by concentrating on the lines in the right way, we now have much bigger donuts. One of the great advantages of a digital edition and a digital subscription delivered to all paid up consumers is that the whole archive is available and searchable. So a subscriber is getting new issues every week, month or quarter, but they are also getting continuous access to a fabulous archive a donut that imperceptibly swells as each new issue is added to it.
  4. Written on the rainbow there’s wisdom to behold. Once we have this donut properly baked, sugared and sized up, most consumer publishers will find that there is a large and profitable market for institutional subscriptions. Magazines such as Crafts, Gramophone, Dazed & Confused, have through their rich and extensive archive a database of considerable value to universities and research institutions. Printed magazines and newspapers have been scrupulously collected and shelved by educational libraries, but they are much more valuable and useful when they are databased and delivered digitally on a campus-wide basis. Yes indeed archives can be made of gold.
  5. Alligators dance, the bulldogs all wear pants. This is the best bit of the song. If you watch the lines and not the squares, if the publisher delivers an archive as well as a set of monthly issues, year by year, it turns out that the subscribers (institutions as well as individuals) need the subscription to continue. They want the renewals just as much as the publisher wants and comes to depend on them. Watch the donut and not the hole.

Next time Woody Guthrie on the Grand Coulee Dam. “River while you are rambling you can do some work for me”.