How to attract readers to pay for content

Fairfax Media’s Michael Laxton talks about the challenges of monetising digital

One of the biggest struggles for traditional print publishers in Australia is effectively monetising their digital audience. This is why Michael Laxton’s job is probably one of the most important at Fairfax Media right now.

He is the director for customer marketing and growth.

“I look after the subscriptions for three mastheads at Fairfax – The SMH, The Age and the Fin Review. My key role is driving subscription revenue across the three. That’s through the print and digital subscriptions we offer,” Laxton explained during a call to Mediaweek. “It’s really about connecting those three mastheads with the qualified audiences, bringing out the quality content journalism angle for the three publications, and then driving that engagement model to ensure that people understand and associate with the core purpose of the mastheads.

Michael Laxton

Michael Laxton

“I look after the whole marketing piece with the KPI of revenue.”

The Australian Financial Review became one of the first major Australian mastheads to introduce a digital paywall in 2006. A subscription model was then trialled and tested for content on The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age websites. In 2011, Fairfax Media rolled out MySMH and MyAge, which allowed paying customers to customise the content they receive from the mastheads.

Currently, annual subscriptions to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald start at $139 per year, and $299 for The Australian Financial Review.

The subscribers to content are the most engaged segment of the audience across the three mastheads, Laxton stated.

“The subscribers really want to see value in their subscription,” he said. “The key learning there is making sure that we connect our subscribers with the content they want to read. We do a lot of work around understanding the content and making sure that the customer journey is very consistent.

“It’s the content, it’s always about the content for our readers.”

This idea of personalisation was the key driver behind the recent launch of Fairfax’s subscriber-only websites for The Age and The SMH called Subscriber First. The website curates important news stories and long reads for subscribers based on an article’s performance on and Editor David Rood and his team update the Subscriber First website twice a day. (Read more about Subscriber First at

“The way that we see it is that it is a three-pronged approach to subscription. So when we bring the subscriber in to get a subscription, it’s really about demonstrating the value of their subscription. That can be Subscriber First, where the content is specially curated for them, or our Subscriber Hub, where we have the value added extras like the live events. Then its about the retention model, so that is about ensuring that they have web access, app access and the print product.”

The biggest challenge for publishers with monetising through their digital products stems from the way content is published and distributed on multiple channels, Laxton said.

“Content distribution and fragmentation are a huge challenge for everyone. From a Fairfax perspective, it’s about constantly ensuring that we are putting the right package out there [and pushing] our quality content and journalism angle.

“How you differentiate yourself in the market is really important for monetisation.”

Publishers are putting in a lot of effort to make sure content is available to their audience when and where they want it. However, Laxton stated, “Monetising is always going to be difficult now just because of how much content there is out there.”

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