Argentina’s Clarín is the Spanish-language newspaper with the largest number of digital subscribers in the world. According to information from the publication itself, as of May 2023, the newspaper had 658,333 digital subscribers, equivalent to 1.4% of the Argentine population.
This resoundingly successful story is narrated in the book “Clarín, actualizado. El relato de la transformación digital del diario Clarín” (Clarín, updated. The report of the digital transformation of newspaper Clarín), by Spanish journalist and consultant Ismael Nafría, published in November 2023 by Galaxia Gutenberg.
In the book, Nafría describes over 536 pages how Clarín, having launched its digital subscription plan only in April 2017, managed to reach such a significant reader base in around six years, accompanied by more than 5 million users registered on its website. The explanation is thorough and covers countless aspects of how the news organization works, from its use of big data to editorial guidelines.
For his research, the author had access to internal documents from the publication and conducted in-depth interviews with the main architects of the publication's digital strategy, in search of, in his words, “valid clues and practical experiences for all media and professionals in the journalistic world interested in finding formulas that allow them to successfully overcome the profound transformation that the sector has experienced since the emergence of the Internet.”
"The book is of interest to anyone involved in the media business, because it helps to understand where they are going. There are very few books that explain that type of thing, that try to explain how to work in the media. It is of interest to professors, to communication consultants, to companies that are related to the media and to anyone who wants to understand the challenges of the sector," Nafría told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).
This is Nafría's fifth book, and his second consecutive deep dive observing the gears of a major newspaper. In 2017, while a journalist in residence at the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, he published “La reinvención de The New York Times” (The reinvention of The New York Times). The objective was to explain the reinvention process that the most influential newspaper in the world has undergone in the last two decades to adapt to the new digital and mobile era.
It was precisely the success of that book that encouraged him to want to write about Clarín, he said.
“When I wrote the book about The New York Times, it has had an impact that I consider quite relevant throughout the Latin American region and in Spain. I realized that, although it was not a very premeditated plan, it could also be interesting to approach the idea of writing a book about a media outlet in Spanish that would be a more direct reference for many of the people with whom I interacted,” he said. “The opportunity arose to write the book about the Clarín case, and we began to discuss it informally. Later, the idea came to fruition, since both I and them found it interesting.”
There are similarities and differences between the cases of the two newspapers. Among the common points, both newspapers adopted a strategy of looking for registered users first and applied big data to better understand their readers. In addition, they also prioritize editorial strategies to promote the creation of content that leads to obtaining subscribers.
Among the differences, The New York Times directs all of its production towards subscriptions, while Clarín has part of its editorial activity aimed at generating advertising revenue through large audiences.
Furthermore, The New York Times is a news reference in other English-speaking countries, while Clarín and other Spanish-language newspapers are more influential in their countries of origin. Finally, The New York Times has a significant international presence, with teams in other countries, while Clarín does not have large teams outside of Argentina.
LatAm Journalism Review read Nafría's new book and spoke with the author in search of valuable tips for other Latin American media outlets. Given the large scope of the work, the lessons below are just a small sample compared to research that goes much deeper.
At the heart of content that is capable of converting casual readers into subscribers, Nafría says there is the concept of a “decisive article” developed by the newspaper's management with consultant Antoni Cases.
In one of the documents to which the Spanish author had access, it is written that “There is undoubtedly a factor of adhesion to the brand", but the subscription does not occur "without shock,” without the user wanting to access certain content and being prevented from doing so by the paywall.
The “decisive articles” are precisely the publications with the greatest chance of awakening this desire. Each editor is obliged to publish two of them per day, totaling 10 to 12 for the entire newspaper. Unlike other information, it is necessarily closed behind a paywall.
In editorial terms, according to Clarín's internal document, "the unique and differential character of the content is the most determining factor in the process of attracting subscribers.” In view of this, these publications must have "quality and depth," as "conversion improves with very well prepared, rigorous and complete work."
“The main idea is that these articles are only found in Clarín and not in the competition or in other places,” Nafría said. “Although it is possible that without this concept the newsroom would still produce similar pieces, its existence makes it easier for more people in the newsroom to understand what type of informative product they are creating. This is valuable to explain the type of product you are looking for to both the editorial staff and the teams involved. What Clarín seeks with these articles is to be exclusive, and that they offer quality, depth and an attractive digital narrative.”
While part of Clarín's newsroom is focused on generating high-value content, another part aims to attract large audiences, including readers who are not necessarily subscribers. The objective of mass audiences is, in addition to large audience numbers, to also obtain resources via digital advertising.
“It is a two-fold strategy and I have found very few newspapers in the world with such a clear definition. They do not focus only on attracting an audience that wants to subscribe, but also on reaching the largest possible audience,” Nafria said.
Dedicated to attracting large audiences, there are some exclusively digital sections, such as "Último Momento" (dedicated to covering breaking news), "Internacional" (about international news items, it differs from the "World" section, which deals with topics of international politics) and "Viste" (on viral topics). According to the book, Grupo Clarín media account for around 20% of advertising investments in Argentina.
In the book, Pablo Vaca, who heads the large audiences section, says that around 250 news items are published per day in the newspaper.
Nafría defends this content, saying it differs from clickbait.
“For me, clickbait is when misleading headlines are published that then do not correspond to the content that is going to be presented, or when a phrase is created that says nothing but somehow forces you to click. If we understand clickbait as the creation of informative pieces that can interest the maximum number of people, perhaps addressing topics of celebrities or curiosities, then Clarín also publishes those stories,” he said.
One of the most surprising items covered in the book is how Clarín consciously sought out and coordinated with its biggest historical competitor, the newspaper La Nación, before launching its user registration and its paywall, so that the initiatives of the two newspapers were launched jointly.
“They understood that the rival was not the rival newspaper, but other companies that were capturing the attention of users,” Nafría said, in reference to companies like Google and Facebook.
“Collaboration, which occurs not only in Argentina but also in Spain and around the world, is sometimes difficult between media that were competitors for a long time. However, now they have understood that it is much better to join forces and strategies, because the enemy, so to speak, are other companies and activities. The stronger the media in general, the more everyone benefits,” he added.
The collaboration took place mainly to start user registration, which the two newspapers launched on the same day in February 2015. To launch subscriptions, Clarín also spoke with La Nación, but ended up going ahead and launching its own in April 2017, four months ahead of the other newspaper.
When they adopted user registration (two years before launching subscription), readers of the Clarín website were able to read a maximum of 20 news items per month before registering – this amount would be progressively reduced over the years. In one month, 190,000 readers registered. Seven months later, in September 2015, it would be half a million.
Currently, there are more than five million registered readers. Each of them provides precious data to the company, such as reading habits and preferences. According to Nafría, based on the records, data became a central element in the management of Clarín's business.
“Having more registered users provides the perfect basis to better analyze their behavior and use the data science behind Big Data to make offers to the most suitable profiles at the right time. Effective management of registrations that were made before subscription launched is part of successful subscription growth,” Nafría said.
The newspaper has a team of around 30 professionals dedicated to data, which the researcher considers a crucial investment.
“It is probably the most important Big Data team in all Spanish-speaking media. This has given them a competitive advantage. It was a strategic move to understand users, which required professionals who knew how to collect, analyze and apply this information," the author said.
Clarín made a commitment to newsletters at the end of 2018, with the publication of 16 newsletters. Since then, some have disappeared and others have been created. Currently, there are 21 available, with a broad range of themes, from the main news of the day to be read in seven minutes, to analysis on agribusiness, to astrology, to “what to eat during the weekend.”
According to the author, Clarín sought to take advantage of its distinguished professionals with newsletters, connecting with the audience.
“Some newsletters can be generic and offered through any media outlet, but others have more personality and this is valuable. For example, the newsletter on rural issues, which has a journalist specialized in the agricultural field, is a way to reach a very specific audience,” he said.
There is a professional dedicated to newsletters, which the researcher considers “very important, since this product has its own characteristics and the difference in results between doing it well and doing it poorly is significant.”
According to the book, with its newsletters, Clarín seeks to retain its users, acquire new digital subscribers, reduce the abandonment rate and attract new users. There were more than 641,000 registered users for the newsletters in January 2023, when this part of the research ended.
Before the transition to digital, Clarín made another significant and successful change: from a newspaper that was sold primarily on newsstands, it began to be sold mainly through subscriptions in the early 2010s.
The main reason for this was the benefits club launched in October 2010, called Club 365 (initially, Clarín 365). It offered discounts of up to 50% on more than 300 brands and more than 1,000 commercial points, from supermarkets to telephone services and beauty salons. To achieve this, it was necessary to subscribe to Clarín at least on Sundays and on another day of the week.
Since then, it has become the most successful loyalty program in Argentina, Nafría said, reaching almost 400,000 homes in 2016, before the launch of digital subscriptions. In 2019, it had reached more than half a million users.
“This change introduced the subscription culture, which did not exist previously, and was a major internal cultural change,” Nafría said.
“Additionally, Club 365 marked the first time that Clarín, instead of being primarily business-to-business (B2B) with a limited number of advertisers, began to have commercial relationships with thousands and thousands of businesses. This represented a significant change for a company that previously issued hundreds of invoices and now needed to manage thousands of them. This change was the starting point for the emergence of Big Data and the culture of making informed decisions based on data, which had a very positive impact and was applied in all areas of the company,” he added.
According to the book, the number of employees in the production of Grupo Clarín content – which includes, in addition to the newspaper itself, the sports daily Olé, radio and television channels – is falling. While there were 7,851 in 2011 and 6,908 in 2016, this number fell to 5,296 in 2020.
The book does not discuss the staff cuts in detail, but an internal document from 2009 to which Nafría had access already predicted that, of the almost 2,000 employees in the newspaper's editorial branch in 2009, the forecast was a reduction to 1,300 people by 2015. The book includes a letter communicating the collective dismissal of 56 professionals in 2019, which prompted a strike.
“It is true that, unlike what has happened with The New York Times, which has increased its staff since the launch of digital subscriptions, in the case of Clarín there has not been a significant increase in the number of professionals. In fact, at Clarín there have been several cuts at different times in the newsroom,” Nafría said.
One of the reasons for this, according to the author, is the global economic environment and the Argentine market, which has not been favorable for many years.
"This has made it difficult for the business to reach its maximum potential. Clarín has adopted a strategy of controlling expenses, in addition to boosting income from digital subscriptions and advertising."