Beyond Print Toolkit: Website revenue

Envision your website as a dynamic space that captures the essence of your news organization’s mission and identity while actively enticing readers to become digital subscribers or members.

By Richard E. Brown

June 27, 2024

beast01 / Shutterstock

A website is a necessity for news organizations to perform one of their most basic functions: publish journalism. But as they navigate the shift from print to digital, a website — especially the homepage — is essential for developing reader revenue. Publishers must construct a digital experience that effortlessly guides readers, cultivates loyalty, and propels growth. Each element, from intuitive flow, design layout, page loading times, and strategic ad placement, plays a crucial role in shaping how readers perceive your publication. Your homepage serves as the embodiment of your brand, conveying its personality and value proposition. 

Your website will also be where readers see calls-to-action to subscribe, hit pay meters, and complete the transaction to become a subscriber. You’ll need to think strategically on how to make all of those experiences as seamless as possible for your audience. 

Envision your website as a dynamic space that captures the essence of your news organization’s mission and identity while actively enticing readers to become digital subscribers or members. Every click, scroll, and pageview yields valuable user behavior and engagement data, guiding your strategy for acquiring and retaining loyal audiences. This understanding informs the crucial moment you request a monetary commitment, ensuring a seamless transition from casual reader to loyal subscriber.

The essentials

Your website is the most important real estate your organization has to drive digital subscriptions. It is a space you totally control and where most of your readers will interact with your journalism. Here are some of the key aspects to consider when thinking about how to design a website and homepage that not only showcases your journalism but also cultivates a devoted readership and drives revenue. 

Optimize user experience to showcase your brand

To truly captivate your audience, prioritize a stellar user experience. Start by defining your website’s North Star mission – the guiding principle that drives every design choice. This should align with the value proposition of your organization. Ensure readers understand your purpose with clear communication and navigation and a consistent brand identity reflected in the site’s structure.

Every resource, form, and button on your website should guide users intuitively, informing and engaging them effortlessly. Replicate the ease of accessing information in print or person, translating your user-friendly DNA to the digital landscape. Prioritize straightforward design, intuitive navigation, and lightning-fast page loads for a frictionless journey that keeps readers coming back for more. Research from Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative examining data from three metro newspapers found that a regular reading habit is the best predictor for whether a reader will become — and stay — a subscriber. 

Elevate visuals, layout, and messaging to engage readers actively. Prioritize clarity and a harmonious visual experience. This strategic alignment strengthens the reader’s connection with your brand and content, fostering deeper trust and loyalty.

Subscription acquisition & retention

Envision your website and your content site as a unique sales pitch — a blind date with shared interests. Master the art of leveraging your platform to offer compelling calls to action to make the pitch to readers to subscribe. Utilize your analytics to understand the ebbs and flows of reader engagement to determine the optimal moment to invite readers as paying subscribers, emphasizing shared interests and fostering a community of engaged, like-minded individuals.

Common areas on your website that are valuable to utilize for subscription requests are: 

  • Navigation bar: This prime location is perfect for a prominent “Subscribe” button. Use a clear and visually appealing design to grab attention.
  • Mid-article and end-of-article CTAs: Capture readers when they’re immersed in your content. Place calls to action (CTAs) midway through or at the end of articles, encouraging them to subscribe for more in-depth stories.
  • Mission & problem statement pages: These pages resonate with readers who identify with your cause. Include compelling CTAs explaining how subscribing helps bridge the information gap in your community. While traffic may be lower here, conversions can be high.
  • Standalone marketing pages: Showcase different subscription tiers, ad-free options, and pricing structures on dedicated marketing pages. Link to these pages from CTAs throughout your site, and optimize them for search engines to attract new readers.
  • Article paywalls: These pop-ups or prompts typically appear mid-article, offering limited free access before prompting a subscription. Frame the CTA as a way for readers to support your continued quality journalism.

Content analytics

A seamless print-to-digital transition hinges on understanding your audience through robust content analytics — analyze reader engagement, website navigation, and traffic patterns. Study how readers interact with your pay meter. Identify popular content, user journeys, and seasonal trends. 

While understanding reader preferences is valuable, prioritize a well-defined strategy focused on key engagement metrics aligning with your organizational KPIs. This means knowing your “why” – what actions will these analytics trigger? What objectives will they propel? Conduct reader surveys for deeper insights but remember: the true power lies in actively translating data into actionable plans and decision trees based on your audience’s motivations, triggers, and deterrents. (We’ll cover this more below in the Key Indicators section.) 

Plan your pay meter 

Not every newspaper with a digital subscription or membership model has a paywall — The Guardian is a large international outlet that has successfully made its coverage free to access and The Chicago Sun-Times dropped its paywall in favor of a membership approach in fall 2022. 

But for those who do decide that a paywall is right for them, they’ll need to consider how to implement it. Approaches include: 

  • Hard Paywall: This is the most restrictive model. All content sits behind a paywall, forcing users to subscribe for access. While it offers a clear value proposition for subscribers and potentially higher revenue per user, it limits reach and can alienate new or casual readers. It may not be suitable for all publications, as some people believe that by virtue, news should be freely available. News organizations considering a hard paywall must carefully evaluate if it aligns with their audience and mission.
  • Metered Paywall: This model provides a limited amount of free monthly content (e.g., 5 articles). After that limit is reached, a paywall appears. The advantage is balancing accessibility with subscription incentives. Readers can sample content before subscribing, potentially becoming advocates for the publication. However, readers risk abandoning a story they’re interested in if they hit the limit. The key to metered paywalls is establishing high-quality value early on to encourage subscriptions.
  • Dynamic Paywall: This approach uses data, propensity models, and algorithms to personalize what content is freely available. Factors like reader location, user frequency, and article type can influence when this paywall appears. The benefit is a highly targeted approach that maximizes conversions based on reader interest. This aligns with the mission of delivering relevant content to each reader. However, dynamic paywalls can be complex to set up and maintain, and the data-driven personalization might feel unfair to some readers.
  • Registration Wall: This requires users to register with an email address for free access. It’s essentially a data collection tool for potential future marketing and subscription efforts. While it can feel like a barrier for privacy-conscious readers, it allows news organizations to build an audience list for personalized email marketing and create a pool of potential future subscribers.

We cover the technical paywall requirements in the technology section of the Toolkit. 

Checkout process

Once someone decides they want to become a subscriber or member, you want to make it as easy as possible for them to complete the process with a simple and straightforward checkout process. Focus on simplicity, clarity, conciseness, and the best experience for everyone involved, both internally and externally. 

For more, check out this Lenfest Institute case study on optimizing your checkout flow. 

Remember advertising

While reader revenue is paramount, you want to ensure that your website can also support advertising as a potential additional revenue stream. Navigation should be straightforward, ad placements must be labeled and valuable, and the overall strategy needs to align with the organization’s revenue objectives, audience development, and community sponsorship opportunities.

For more, check out our digital advertising sections. 

Search engine optimization (SEO)

While engaging content is the lifeblood of any news media website, maximizing its reach requires optimal visibility. For a seamless print-to-digital transition, prioritize robust SEO from the outset. Before launch, collaborate with an SEO expert to define a comprehensive search engine optimization strategy.

Focus on content and structural navigation pages, as these guide organic traffic from search engines. Ensuring SEO friendliness with clear titles, relevant keywords embedded in meta descriptions and content, proper header tagging, and consistent application across all editorial personnel or website admin teams is crucial.

Think of SEO as meticulously filing your articles for optimal search engine discovery. To refine your strategy, implement white-glove backlinking with credible content and sources, internal linking, and ongoing keyword research. While customization is critical, a well-defined, disciplined approach to SEO builds a consistent, searchable presence, attracting the most relevant organic traffic to your new site.

Key indicators:

Tracking subscriber growth, user engagement on top-performing pages, and any feedback or customer service issues related to user experience is critical to success. Strong performance paves the way for organic website growth through subscriptions, sponsorships, and advertising.

Foster transparency and alignment through regular (weekly/bi-weekly) stakeholder meetings and written updates. Involve all relevant teams – from development to editorial – to ensure information flows seamlessly and everyone’s working towards the same goals: user satisfaction and advertiser value. Prioritize site performance, speed, and a consistently smooth, secure, and engaging user experience across every page. Remember, a happy site means happy users and a thriving digital newsroom.

Here are some metrics that are worth tracking: 

Audience engagement and acquisition:

  • Pageviews per visit: This metric indicates the average number of pages viewed by visitors during a single session on the website. Understanding this helps gauge engagement levels and specific content interests over time.
  • Average session duration: This metric reflects the amount of time visitors spend on the website per session, indicating the depth of their interaction with the content.
  • Return rate: This measures the percentage of visitors who come back to the website after their initial visit, showing the site’s ability to retain and attract repeat traffic.
  • Click-through rate (CTR): CTR measures the effectiveness of specific articles or links in driving engagement. It helps identify content that resonates most with users.

Subscriber growth and retention:

  • Subscriber growth rate: This metric tracks the rate at which new subscribers are added to the audience over time. It reflects the alignment between content and audience and the success of acquisition strategies.
  • Subscriber churn rate: Churn rate indicates the rate at which subscribers cancel their subscriptions. It’s crucial for assessing both acquisition and retention strategies.
  • Subscription conversion rate: This measures the effectiveness of various site elements in driving desired actions like article views, subscriptions, or engagement with ads. It guides optimization efforts.

Revenue optimization:

  • Cost per acquisition (CPA): CPA calculates the cost of acquiring new subscribers, ensuring sustainable profitability for acquisition campaigns.
  • Lifetime value (LTV): LTV assesses the total revenue generated from a subscriber throughout their relationship with the news organization. It helps evaluate long-term profitability and informs strategic decisions regarding revenue models. 


Testing strategies, tactics, and website development for a successful transition from print to digital, particularly in maximizing reader revenue, requires a focused approach. Streamlining the testing efforts into three key areas can simplify the process and generate valuable insights. The crucial element is to prioritize an optimal user experience. By adopting a strategic testing approach that centers on engagement, monetization, and retention, newspaper organizations can develop a successful digital presence.


Begin by emphasizing user experience, ensuring the website layout is user-friendly across all platforms. Conduct internal and external surveys to determine design and navigation preferences. Evaluate what your subscribers want from a digital news site, since these expectations often differ from those of a print product. Thoroughly testing different layouts and assessing user engagement will guide the creation of an efficient and engaging website.


Monetizing a newly developed website in a newspaper organization demands a strategic testing approach. Begin by establishing a pricing structure aligned with data on your audience’s demographics, preferences, and perceived product value. Explore various subscription models, including monthly and annual options, to understand their impact on retention rates. Next, meticulously test paywall strategies such as user engagement time frames, content preferences, and average views per user — pivotal for shaping a successful reader revenue approach during the transition from print to digital. Understanding user behavior is at the core of effective paywalls, necessitating comprehensive testing across key metrics.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Choose the right paywall type: Before implementing a paywall, it’s crucial to test and define which type best aligns with your audience and strategy. While a hard paywall is straightforward, starting with metered or registered paywalls can prime your audience for the concept while allowing flexibility in testing different layouts.
  • Select content wisely: Determine which content to place behind the paywall, ensuring it resonates with your audience and effectively serves their needs. Test various content types to understand their impact on conversion rates and engagement metrics like traffic volume.
  • A/B test premium content: Experiment with A/B testing to gauge audience willingness to pay for premium content. Solicit user feedback to craft compelling value propositions and pricing strategies that effectively communicate your content’s value and resonate with your audience.
  • Identify user engagement time frames: Pinpoint peak user engagement moments to tailor paywall strategies accordingly. Analyze engagement patterns to determine the most effective time frames for implementing paywalls, considering seasonal trends and user behavior during key events like elections or holidays.
  • Dive into aspects to tailor paywall strategies for optimal resonance with your audience, achieving higher conversion rates. If available, Identify peak user engagement moments, frequency, and willingness to pay for premium content, pinpointing content types with a perceived higher value.

In addition to experimenting with paywall revenue, testing various ad sizes and placements is crucial to strike the right balance between revenue generation and maintaining a positive user experience. Remember, revenue and user experience are not mutually exclusive, but you want to strike a harmonious balance between revenue generation and a positive, engaging user experience. 


To enhance retention, test different on-site communication and messaging strategies. Implement A/B tests for onboarding communication, payment failure reminders, and exit or cancellation processes. Make the cancellation process straightforward and user-friendly while testing communication flows that convince users to reconsider discontinuing their subscription. Tailoring communication to different user segments and understanding what content keeps users engaged and active longer on the site contributes to effective retention strategies.


A successful news website requires a guiding vision that balances reader engagement, financial sustainability, and brand identity. You need the right platform to help you deliver value against that vision. Leverage the expertise of a media-focused publishing platform. Some examples include: 

  • Newspack
  • Tiny News Collective
  • WordPress
  • Ghost

For a more comprehensive list, check out INMA’s CMS vendor selection tool

A well-defined plan ensures your chosen partners understand your goals and can build a website with the essential features and functionalities. Maintaining accountability is crucial. Stick to deadlines and partner with experienced professionals who share your values and understand the news media landscape. This approach guarantees a website that expands readership, attracts subscribers , and reflects your brand’s core identity. 

You can’t just set and forget a website. Frequent user testing is essential, and sustaining success demands continuous promotion and re-engagement. You can cultivate a loyal following by providing consistently valuable and resourceful content, fostering community, and employing audience-driven strategies. By balancing a clear vision for your organization with meticulous testing, you can build a dynamic news website that expands your reach and thrives in the digital landscape, all while staying true to your core values. Avoid time-sucking distractions and prioritize strategic, research-driven decisions. Remember, a successful website is not just a digital replica of your brand; it’s a living platform that evolves with your audience and the ever-changing news media environment.

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