The Independent is the latest publisher to try paid memberships

Last week, The Independent rolled out its subscription product, Independent Minds, which has been in the works since January. For £55 a year ($71.71), members get access to premium content, a daily newsletter, event tickets, e-books, an ad-free site and the option to help shape editorial coverage.

The ESI Media title shuttered its print edition in March 2016. Since then, it has used Facebook as a way to grow audiences overseas, particularly in the U.S., monetizing this mostly through programmatic ads. This year, it recorded profits of £2.5 million ($3.3 million).

Like other publishers, diversifying revenues in a volatile digital ad market is a key part of The Independent’s strategy. Advertising is still its dominant source and is growing, while content licensing and subscriptions to Daily Edition, its daily digital newspaper, make up other revenue streams.

With Independent Minds, the publisher said it plans to break even in a year.

“We’re leveraging the journalists and international footprint we already have, this is additional without having an adverse impact on the business,” said Zach Leonard, managing director of digital at ESI Media, who has previously worked at subscription publishers the Times of London and The Financial Times. “This hasn’t been about hiring extra heads to create content.”

The Independent has around 20 on staff in the U.S., 15 of whom are editorial, and it plans to hire an additional 10 over the next year. Roughly a third of its audience comes from the U.K., a third from the U.S. and a third from the rest of the world. It has around 10 correspondents across Europe, India and the Middle East.  In addition to more journalists, the publisher staffed up in data analytics, product development and marketing in the U.K. for Independent Minds.

Pieces behind the paywall include longer features like whether Barack Obama caused Donald Trump’s presidency, a look at what happens to jihadi orphans, a feature written by long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe and an opinion piece critiquing Theresa May’s Brexit plans from the Tory Conference.

The challenge will be in creating content that people want to part cash with to access.

The Independent was hit hard when the Facebook made changes to its news-feed algorithm at the beginning of this year, by referral traffic and Instant Articles revenue. Staff were focused on writing headlines to fit mobile and different social media channels, posting the volume and time of day to move the needle. Now that team is more focused on driving up The Independent in search rankings.

“There’s a refocus and emphasis on Voices [opinion pieces from columnists] and commentary, the DNA of The Independent,” said Leonard. “We have more foreign correspondents in situ than five years ago. Independent Minds will lengthen and strengthen what The Independent has always been known for: Strong political commentary, foreign affairs and increasingly more business and economics.”

The challenge for The Independent is marrying a mass model with a focused membership model, said Aron Pilhofer, who teaches journalism at Temple University.

“You can’t have a strategy built for massive scale and to drive memberships,” Pilhofer said. “You can have a mix, but you need to have a direction of travel. The challenge is it’s very difficult to have it both ways.”

The Independent’s pricing is lower than competitors like The Times of London, which charges £39 ($50.84) a month for a print and digital subscription, and The Economist, which charges £179 ($233.33) for an annual print and digital subscription. The Independent Daily Edition is £12.99 ($16.91) a month. While this attracts new audiences, the potential challenge is cannibalizing Daily Edition customers to trade down to a cheaper alternative.

“Communication of member benefits and understanding how they drive value perception is critical here,” said Greg Harwood, director at strategy and marketing consultant Simon-Kucher & Partners.

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