Why it's important to offer auto-renew subscriptions


Last updated 9/13/2023 at 1:26pm

Rarely do I use daily newspapers as model for how a small or medium sized weekly community newspaper should approach a problem or solution. Because not only are the dailies on a different business model, the gap is so huge they're practically on a different planet.

One exception to this is the concept of auto-renew subscriptions. These are subscriptions that don't expire, similar to a Netflix subscription that automatically renews (charges) each month, until the subscriber pauses or cancels the subscription. The only substantive difference between a daily and a non-daily newspaper here is; dailies tend to sell weekly auto-renew subscriptions, while weekly and monthly newspapers tend to sell monthly and (some) yearly auto-renew subscriptions.

I spent the latter half of 2022 creating ROAR's new Auto-Renew Plugin so our newspaper clients could offer auto-renew subscriptions to their readers. During this process, I became a firm believer in the auto-renew concept. I literally see no downsides. It's my firm opinion that all paid newspapers should be selling auto-renew subscriptions, regardless of their size. Please consider the following.

You can charge more $$.

Say your in-county rate for a non-auto-renew (classic) subscription is $38 per year. Why not instead sell it for $3.99 per month? That equates to a $10 annual price increase, but to the consumer $3.99 is probably their smallest monthly bill, and so is acceptable.

You'll sell more subscriptions.

You'll sell more print subscriptions. And in my opinion, this should be the primary purpose of having a newspaper website in the first place if you're a typical weekly community newspaper. (Please read my article titled 'Using your website to increase print subscriptions'.)

Auto-renew subscriptions reduce the barrier to subscribe by lowering the cost one must spend upfront. Using the above example, I can subscribe for $3.99 out of pocket instead of $38. And you can reduce the barrier even more by offering the first month for 99 cents or so. It makes sense that by lowering the bar from $38 to 99 cents that you'll sell more subscriptions. And hopefully, as outlined in the above article, you're including online access with your print subscriptions in order to ensure online readers are print subscribers.

You'll retain subscribers longer, save on mailing costs and time.

If you've ever been a Circulation manager, you understand how much effort goes into convincing your subscribers to renew each year. You typically start sending out renewal notices 3 or 4 months before a subscription comes due. You incur mailing costs, and spend significant time doing mailings and making phone calls to get as many renewals as possible. It's fairly labor intensive, and the process never ends because each month another group needs renewing. Considering everything, it just makes no sense to push classic subscriptions over auto-renew subscriptions. Yes, you should offer both options, but auto-renew subscriptions should be your 'go-to' if you wish to reduce costs, increase revenue, and lessen the burden on your Circulation department.

Why is PayPal good?

Some newspapers offering auto-renew subscriptions have a system where each user maintains their current payment method (credit card) on their 'My Account' page of the newspaper website. A better method is to use PayPal to handle your auto-renew subscription payments (while still letting the user manage their subscription on their 'My Account' page), because when a subscribers credit card expires, it's very likely they won't update it on your website (meaning their auto-renew subscription will expire, which defeats the purpose of auto-renew), but it's very likely they will update an expired credit card in their PayPal account. And even if they don't, their PayPal account typically has a secondary payment option configured, so payments shouldn't fail.

So... by using PayPay you significantly decrease the chances that your auto-renew subscriptions will stop prematurely. Also, PayPal makes it easy for anyone w/o a PayPal account to set up an auto-renew subscription by simply using a credit card (although some of the above protections disappear). And (at least in the case of our system ROAR ) PayPal makes it a very simple process to add the necessary feature where users can upgrade their existing classic subscriptions to auto-renew. Setting aside any feelings you personally may have towards mega-companies like PayPal, they really are the only game in town where the majority of your readers have an account, have a backup payment option configured, and can handle your auto-renew subscriptions.

Avoid database woes

You need to be able to maintain both your classic and auto-renew subscriptions in your in-office subscriptions database. You can do this with Interlink (my favorite paid circulation database solution), or you're welcome to a free copy of a (less powerful but adequate) subscription database solution we offer small newspapers on a budget. Contact us at https://www.lionslight.com if you'd like a free copy. You do not need to be a client.

It's also important that your circulation database solution syncs with your website's subscriptions database, whether you offer auto-renew subscriptions or not. Both Interlink and our free solution have that capability.

Lastly, just a technical piece of advice; If you use another circulation database solution, you may need to ensure that at the time you perform your sync (assuming you sync manually vs automatically), that your subscriptions database or website queries PayPal to confirm that all your auto-renew subscriptions are entered correctly. Meaning that the ones you show as active are still actually active, etc. This can only be done if your website solution has a mechanism to cache PayPal data. Obviously there's a lot to this technical side of things, so just confirm with your website provider that you have a solution in place to prevent cancelled auto-renew subscribers from mistakenly being sent a print copy indefinitely, due to staff error.


I think the rational conclusion is that auto-renew subscriptions are the way to go. Do they add complexity? Yes... and no. Are they a change to how newspapers have sold subscriptions for the past 100+ years? Yes, but it's a welcome change, and one that you'll see benefits from immediately. The bottom line is, auto-renew subscriptions are here to stay, and if you're not offering them, I think you should strongly consider it.


If you'd like a presentation on Lions Light's auto-renew solution, or just have questions about the auto-renew concept, please feel free to contact me directly.


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