Argentine newspapers were late in the trend of the world press to implement paywalls to limit access to content to readers who pay for information. Clarín, a pioneer in the country, launched its digital subscription system just in 2017. For comparison, the Reforma group, from Mexico, was the first in Latin America to adopt the paywall, in 2003. In Brazil, Folha de S. Paulo was the first in 2012.
Just three years in, the Argentine newspaper reached 260,000 online subscribers, while the Brazilian publication has 236,000 and is still the leader in the country. It is clear that the two markets have different characteristics, but the numbers reached by Clarín in so little time show that in Argentina there was a pent-up demand among readers.
“We should have launched digital subscriptions much earlier. The fear of losing audience in those years was very present and today we can say that Clarín is still a leader in mass audience and at the same time in subscriptions,” Ricardo Kirschbaum, general editor of Clarín, told the Knight Center.
Although late, the decision proved to be crucial for the strengthening of the newspaper at a time when the business model crisis of Argentine newspapers was deepening.
In the last decade, there has been a drop in the average daily circulation of print editions among newspapers across the country. From 1.4 million copies in 2008, it fell to less than 1 million in 2017. During that period, the sharpest decline occurred between 2013 and 2014, when it dropped to less than 1 million copies daily. In 2017, there were just over 800,000.
“In Argentina in recent years we have had a kind of double storm. On the one hand, in keeping with what happens around the world, sales of print editions are falling. Adding to this situation, in Argentina there has been an economic crisis, sustained, a recessive process that has further complicated all economic variables for at least 8 or 9 years,” Andrés D’Alessandro, executive director of the Association of Argentine Journalistic Entities (ADEPA, for its initials in Spanish), told the Knight Center.
On the other hand, the digital audience of journalistic outlets in the country is massive, with an audience totaling 50 million unique visitors. This, however, has not been able to prevent the sharp drop in advertising revenue. Print media saw a 40 percent drop in resources from ad sales between 2010 and 2017 in Argentina.
“The paradox, as also happens in other countries, is that online editions do not stop growing. We have never had as many readers as now, measured in the number of people who access the printed editions and our digital editions. (...) The difference, obviously, is in what is perceived in the result of that consumption. Digital editions clearly fail to balance, they cannot replace what is lost by paper, what is lost by print,” D’Alessandro said.
Service for other newspapers
The 115-year-old newspaper La Voz del Interior, in Cordoba, is the largest in Argentina after the Buenos Aires newspapers. Even so, it sells only 50,000 print copies per day, as it operates in a much smaller market. La Voz launched its digital subscription model in February 2018 with an innovation: the development of its own technological solution for the management of subscribers.
“When everything was ready for us to go on the market, an unforeseen tax issue arose, which raised the cost of the service by 40 percent and made it unfeasible. Given this, we decided to abort the start of our paywall and there the idea arose to take advantage of all the experience collected until then to develop our own platform,” Carlos Jornet, journalistic director of La Voz del Interior, told the Knight Center.
Thus, the Wyleex platform became a product with a market among other Latin American newspapers, serving as an extra source of revenue for La Voz. According to Jornet, the platform is used by other newspapers in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Panama, with advanced contacts in ten other countries in the region.
“The great added value that we offer, in addition to costs according to the Latin American reality, is that the tool was born from a media outlet and is accompanied by our experience in the field. With our successes and mistakes. (...) In addition, the platform is evolving on the basis of our own experience and that of our clients, often inserted in economies with still incipient degrees of monetization.”
In 2019, La Voz's paywall system was a finalist for the Digital Media LATAM Awards, of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA, in English) in the category of best paid content strategy.
Today, almost two years after the system was implemented, La Voz has 23,500 digital subscribers. According to Jornet, revenues started to rise with the end of promotions offered to the first subscribers. Even so, print still weighs more in the company's total revenue. But it should change soon:
“Our projections indicate that in 2023 we will be a company sustained primarily by the digital business, in which audiences will be an essential part of our monetization,” Jornet said.
“It’s not a 100 meter race, it’s a marathon”
In addition to Clarín and La Voz, newspaper La Nación, a few months after Clarín, and La Gaceta de Tucumán, have also implemented paywall systems.
The traditional La Nación, which turns 150 in 2020, last year surpassed 200,000 digital subscribers. The milestone was reached just under two years after the launch of the daily's paywall system. La Gaceta de Tucumán started selling digital subscriptions in July 2019, using the Wyleex system developed by La Voz del Interior.
The secretary general of La Nación’s newsroom, José Del Río, said he believes that the result achieved in the number of digital subscribers is a result not only of the initiatives to meet the habits of the readers, but also of the investment in good journalism.
“The transformation in which we are immersed implies studying what our readers want, deepening those issues that generate value and continuing to promote specific, innovative and disruptive projects that, thanks to the contribution of the Product and Technology team, bring our journalism to the highest point,” Río wrote on the newspaper’s site in June 2019.
According to Andrés D’Alessandro, ADEPA’s executive director, other Argentine media, both traditional and digital natives, are working on the development of their paywall systems and may join this list in 2020.
The Argentine experience, according to D’Alessandro, indicates that the most loyal readers are those who most adhere to digital subscriptions at first, but for the model to consolidate, new readers must also be gained. For this, the analysis of the public's behavior through the data generated by digital subscriptions is essential.
“I believe that both Clarín and La Nación, and in some measure also La Voz del Interior and now La Gaceta de Tucumán, are taking advantage of the captive public, we say the public that has identified with the newspaper. They are heavy users and are totally related to the brand,” the executive director of ADEPA said. “The big challenge [is to expand the reader base]. I know they are working with all the provision of data that technology and the registration systems allow today. They are making progress on that, but they still have many, many steps to take.”
This is what La Voz del Interior and the daily Clarín have been doing, hoping to keep their journalistic operations sustainable with increasing public support.
“The great challenge of installing a paywall is, obviously, to attract subscribers but preserve traffic volume that continues to support the commercial business model. And in the meantime, to improve the knowledge of our audience so that we can provide advertisers with better contact rates for the products and services they offer,” Jornet said.