Three views on the ways to provide better news to everyone

Media experts Nic Newman, Rodney Benson, and Heather Bryant discuss how we can improve a media landscape which tends to reserve quality journalism for people who pay for it

Cécile Prieur
Mar 25, 2019 · 9 min read

During my journey as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, I am studying the ways to expand paid and quality journalism to a broader audience. The new paradigm of the subscription model, gradually taken by publishers, tends to transform the media landscape by reserving quality journalism for people who can afford to pay for it. If we do not pay attention, we could end up with a wide gap between people who get quality news by paying and those who can’t pay or do not want to pay and stick to easy-to-read news (in the best cases), or disinformation (in the worst).

To make progress in my project, I have talked to several different and inspiring people, who helped me to embrace the different issues of my question. I have asked them what they think about this shift and how the media landscape should improve to solve that situation.

Nic Newman, senior researcher of the Oxford Reuters Institute, spoke with me about the limits of subscription models and what kind of alternatives models could emerge between paywalls and free access. Rodney Benson, professor at New York University, supported the idea that nonprofit news organizations could have a greater impact if they would serve more low-income readers. And Heather Bryant, a journalist and director of Project Facet, a collaboration platform, argued that poor people will accept paying for news if journalism would better reflect their interests.

With the kind agreement of the three of them, I have jotted down their quotes with minimal editing. Sharing their thought-provoking comments is a way for me to enhance the rising debate around news access.


Nic Newman: « We will start to see the limit of subscriptions this year »

Nic Newman is Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, based in Oxford, United Kingdom. He has been the lead author of the Digital News Report since 2012. He has just released his latest report “Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2019”.

“Subscriptions and paid content business models are now the key priority for publishers and digital leaders, which is a major change of focus for the news industry. But I think we are going to start to see the limits of subscriptions this year. First, only a small proportion of people are prepared to pay for news and that’s worrying. Second, there is this fantasy that people are going to pay for two or three subscriptions but that is not going to happen. Third, the more publishers adopt subscription models, the more customers get friction; they are hitting paywalls and barriers everywhere they go. It is all very confusing and not very good for news in the long term. I think we will soon start to see a kind of consumer backlash, with the rise of software to block paywalls for example.

So today, we have paywalls, and we have free access, and we have nothing much in between. But I think it will change in the next few years. The question is, ‘What are the alternatives’? The Guardian donation model is one. Instead of paying after hitting a paywall, you basically pay to support the media and ensure the widest possible access to quality news. We are also starting to see philanthropy and contributions from NGOs become a major income stream for publishers. It is already the case in the U.S., and it will be expanding in Europe where more newsrooms have started to employ dedicated fundraisers and set up philanthropic business units. Other commercial news organizations have started to take an interest in accessing public money or some mix of public money model. Local news, which is in great danger in the U.S. for example, could be sustained by a combination of donations plus some government money along with tax breaks — more like a charity model.

The other thing that we will see, in the long term, is more bundling. The current pricing model of subscription is too high for many, while others want the flexibility of having multiple publications bundled together. Currently, the publishers are afraid that a kind of Netflix for news (that Apple is currently trying to create) could cannibalize their business. But I think once they reach the ceiling of every potential subscriber, they will start looking at bundling. This is much closer to what people really want, which is to pay just one fee and get all the content without friction.

The last thing which could emerge (between locked-in subscriptions and free) is micropayment and digital wallets, a way of allowing people to pay for what they read. So far, micropayment has been stopped by inter-banking fees, which add cost and are a barrier for consumers. But blockchain technology could be another way of facilitating micropayments. Obviously, it will take time, but it could open the way for lower cost and more diverse business models for flourish that don’t require paywalls.”


Rodney Benson: « Nonprofits need to refocus on serving low-income communities because most commercial media will never do it »

Rodney Benson is a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. He has studied different types of media ownership in the US and has worked on the benefits and limits of nonprofits and foundation-supported news organizations.

“A big part of the problem today is that there has been a collapse of advertising-based business models that used to provide quality news for large middle and working-class audiences. General audience metropolitan newspapers are in free fall and the digital media that reach a mass audience like Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post are barely profitable or losing money. Local commercial television news, dominated by crime and scandals, is the major source of news for most low-income citizens. At the other end of the spectrum, national ‘mainstream( media like The New York Times or The Washington Post are relying more and more on paid subscriptions, and people who subscribe tend to be much wealthier and well-educated than the citizenry as a whole. The new mantra has become ‘quality news for quality audiences’, but what about everyone else?

This market failure is not compensated by strong ‘universal’ public media like one finds in western Europe (especially the U.K., Germany, and Scandinavia). These European public media systems have maintained high levels of trust from large, very inclusive audiences. In contrast, the U.S. has this hyper-commercial media system with very small public media and nonprofit sectors. Of course, we have NPR and PBS, which are very high quality, but their audience demographics are very elite. And a big part of that is because they receive very little taxpayer funds ($3 per capita compared to $100-$200 per capita for most European public media) and thus have to tailor their programming to their elite donors.

The best solution for the U.S. would be to expand and strengthen our public system. But given that the current administration wants to do away with public media altogether, that’s a hard sell. In the short term, there’s not much hope of significantly expanding our public media with more taxpayer funds, except maybe at the state and local level.

Instead, in this country, a lot of the energy that could be put into the public sector is channeled into nonprofit journalism, which receives indirect public subsidies through tax-break incentivized donations. Philanthropy, whether from foundations or individuals, is the way a lot of things get done in the U.S. The non-profit sector is doing great work — investigative reporting, specialized reporting on climate change, regional and local politics… But let’s not fool ourselves; it’s not sufficient. Of course, there is no paywall keeping people away, but if you look at their audiences, they are the same “quality” audiences being targeted by elite commercial media, but even more niche.

So, how we could change this situation? I think there is room for the foundations and the nonprofit world to be more thoughtful about what they are supporting. Their whole attitude so far was trying to support the private market as a kind of lab, trying to pilot new models that might take off as business models. They have seen themselves not as a permanent supplement to the commercial sector, but just as a temporary boost during the transition to a new economy. But I think they are finally seeing that this isn’t working. The new economy has arrived and it is based on exclusion. With few exceptions, nonprofits are participating in this exclusion. Nonprofits need to refocus their energies on reaching low-income and marginalized communities because most commercial media can’t and won’t do it. Foundation and individual funders have the discretion to support this as a priority, so it’s up to them to do it.”


Heather Bryant: « Putting an end to the misunderstanding that poor people won’t pay for journalism »

Heather Bryant is a journalist and director of Project Facet, a collaborative platform for newsrooms. She is collaborating as a researcher with the Membership Puzzle Project, studying ways for journalists to better connect with underrepresented audiences. She was a 2017 JSK Fellow.

“The common sentiment in the industry now is that audiences have to pay for journalism. That’s great but what about the ones who can’t pay? One of the things missing from the conversation about journalism being paid for is that there are works of journalism that are so important to the health of a community, society at large or a functioning democracy that it should be widely available and, arguably, free to access. I’m curious what that conversation looks like, and I think we need to have it. Because what we’re doing right now as an industry and as a society grappling with being informed — it’s not working. Do we need to decide if there are some kinds of journalism that are just so important that there should be avenues for accessing it even if you don’t have the means to pay the premium, or can we figure out a way to offset the cost of access to quality, reported journalism for people who can’t afford it?

If there is a type of journalism that should be free, what is it? I found it very interesting during the midterms that large newsrooms were dropping their paywall on election night for results reporting. But it would have been a much better service to the society to have dropped paywalls on ballot guides before people voted when they were trying to make informed decisions.

In general, I think there is a need for a more transparent and trust-building relationship between newsrooms and people for them to know they can rely on us to serve their needs. It’s a very tricky issue because there has been so much overlap in the audiences who don’t have the means or incentive to pay for news and the audiences who have been exploited and marginalized and mistreated by journalism as an industry. That’s a long road to go down for newsrooms to say to these audiences not only you can come to us for news, generally and when you really need it to solve specific problems, but also acknowledge years of misrepresenting of communities. Newsrooms have to reckon with that.

If we are not doing journalism that helps people better navigate their circumstances, they will never be the people who can afford to support journalism or see a reason to use their limited resources on it. We have to put an end to the misunderstanding that newsrooms have, broadly speaking, that the low-income people won’t pay for journalism. They will if journalism solves their problems, but it doesn’t, and so there is no reason for them to use their limited resources on supporting an industry that frequently does nothing to support them. (Seek out Sarah Alvarez, Fiona Morgan, and James Hamilton’s work for more on this.)

There is a sincere need for reflecting on how we, journalists, use the power that we have, whether we would use it to speak to those with power or to empower those without. We need to work to re-center our processes from just what our journalism is about to whom the journalism is for and whom we’re creating it with. In doing so, we will create better journalism. And then we need to ensure the people that journalism is for can actually access it. That’s how we start to find a way through all of the noise.”

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S.

Cécile Prieur

Written by

John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford — Deputy Editor, Le Monde / Directrice adjointe des rédactions, Le Monde @lemondefr

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

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