Trusted to be essential
Business has always shaped journalism, but now it’s time for journalists to think more about the audience and the types of reporting that will generate sustainable business models, writes Jacqui Park.
The burning issue for media companies for two decades has been: The internet’s great, but how are we going to pay for the journalism? And the market has now delivered its verdict: Not through cross-subsidies from advertising, but from direct reader revenue.
It’s also clear that, although this revenue may flow in through many channels — subscriptions, memberships, paywalls, philanthropy, pay-per-read — all of them must be built on trust, a sense of community, and the media consumers’ sense that the journalism they buy delivers value to them personally.
Journalists should embrace this conclusion without hesitation. It puts our work where it should be: At the centre of the industry. It means journalism will shape the business model, not the other way around.
The relevance of journalism in this century depends on convincing our communities we can be trusted — trusted to be honest, to be entertaining and to be compelling. Trusted to be essential.
This comes against the backdrop of a major crisis of confidence among the social media platforms — Facebook, Google and so on — that have been challenging the viability of both our revenue and our control over journalism. These giants have been forced to concede their content curation mechanisms were no match for fake news and audience manipulation, and are looking to recalibrate their relationships with old-school media as means of restoring their credibility.
The shift to reader revenues might be just the opportunity we need. Rather than waiting for a model to emerge, and assuming that journalism as we’ve known it will just plug into it, we can take the chance to ask: What are people prepared to pay for? How much will they pay? And, perhaps most importantly: How many people are prepared to pay?
Another way of saying this is: What kind of journalism is good for business? And that’s the big question for media organisations as they aim for what Newsonomics’ Ken Doctor calls the “crossover” — that point where a news organisation gets more money from readers than it does through advertising.
It means we need to understand our community — and develop our community. The end of mass media means journalism that better understands the tribe it’s talking to and trying to build. By understanding our audience, we can ask: How do we make journalism so compelling and necessary that people will reach into their pockets?
The availability of free information — particularly through social media — means that the point of compulsion has to be that unless they pay, the potential reader will miss out on something creative, exciting and important for them.
So, rather than looking at the models themselves, let’s look at how different approaches to journalism shape the reader revenue models.
The most common method for media organisations to encourage readers to pay is to extract a toll through some form of paywall. Most of the Australian websites that have grown out of newspapers are now operating behind a paywall of some kind. In New Zealand, the media companies have so far made the judgement their population size can’t sustain digital subscriptions.
Paywalls are generally of two types: “hard”, in which the subscriber has no access to any content at all unless they pay, and “soft”, in which the reader can access a certain amount of content before they hit the wall. Although “hard” and “soft” look like two versions of the same thing, they require significantly different journalistic inputs.
We have learned a humbling lesson about hard paywalls: If potential readers don’t know what journalism you have, they are unlikely to pre-commit to paying on trust — no matter how compelling you think your journalism is, or how much that trust tries to build on generations of publishing in old media. Worse, in a system when discoverability is more important than distribution, hard walls exclude the journalism from the social media sharing ecosystem that is critical to bringing in potential readers.
Hard paywalls require a constant stock of stories that are so compelling that sales will spread by word of mouth, in the traditional way. It’s bespoke journalism for tightly formed tribes, where the knowledge that journalism brings is almost a prerequisite for membership. It’s most common in academic and business media where the reader has a professional or financial imperative for gaining access. And it’s as far as we can get from the universally accessible mass media of the 20th century.
Because this approach is not suitable for general interest publications, most media organisations have found it useful to adopt some variation of a soft paywall that provides limited access to content — either over time, or by volume, or a mix of both.
But experience suggests 90–95 per cent of individual readers will never pass through the wall. They may be infrequent readers brought in through a social media link. They may be regular readers who just never hit the required level to trigger the paywall, or who just stop when they do. Or they might just game the system by using multiple devices, clearing cookies or going “incognito”.
These readers do have a real value for the publication. Even if the publication is on the road to reader revenues, they are still relying on advertising while they travel the path to that crossover. Sheer, undifferentiated numbers are still worth something — for the time being anyway.
But more than their value as fodder for advertisers, these consumers are the pool in which the publication can best fish for subscribers.
For general news organisations, that means the publicly available material has to be both broadly compelling (to drive up raw numbers) and specifically compelling (or a taster for compelling subscriber-only material). This is what will convert casual readers to subscribers.
Making journalism that meets these two goals is harder than it looks — particularly when we know that future financial viability lies with the paying consumers who form the minority of the audience.
We know readers won’t pay to read the same story again and again. That’s what distinguishes journalism from, say, pop music. But they may be attracted to pay to read the same journalist over and over. Social media and search encourage this trend.
It’s why so many media organisations work with their journalists to build a personal brand and grapple with the much more difficult task of meshing the personal brand with the organisation’s brand.
And it’s why so many organisations are now tying the sales pitch directly to the journalism. At the end of just about every Guardian story, for example, there’s the box that starts: “Since you’re here….we have a small favour to ask.” Similarly, The New York Times uses its journalists to appeal directly, via its email lists, to readers to subscribe.
Granted, the Guardian does not have a paywall. Rather than subscriptions, they have sought to cultivate “members” or “supporters”, and now claim to be receiving regular payments from about 800,000 people around the world.
But pulling off this pitch depends on a particular kind of journalism and on a particular kind of relationship between the media organisation and the reader — almost a sense of ownership or community. As a not-for-profit with a reasonably clear political positioning, this is easier for the Guardian than for a rigorously commercial operation.
It’s not clear that any Australian organisation has been able to pull this off yet, with the possible exception of The Australian.
The New York Times discovered how this relationship changes journalism when it employed conservative opinion writer Bret Stephens in April. A significant group of subscribers — many of whom had signed up as an anti-Trump political gesture — were more than annoyed. They felt betrayed.
Journalism is also being re-shaped by direct funding of subject verticals by special interest groups or philanthropists. Many of these are dedicated to worthwhile causes, such as water or homelessness or justice. Some, such as the Texas Tribune, provide the sort of in-depth coverage of state politics that market-driven news outlets can no longer afford to produce.
At one level, this is no different from traditional coverage of areas that are advertising-rich (real estate, anyone?). But preserving reportorial autonomy in funded verticals requires a clear contractual acknowledgement of editorial independence from the funder. One strategy to allay the risk of funder interference is to cultivate multiple sources of funding.
There’s nothing revolutionary about recognising that the process of the business will shape the process of the craft. It was true, obviously, in what’s been called the industrial journalism of the 20th century.
But in this century, if we want to entrench the key underlying principles of independent journalism — respect for truth, respect for the public’s right to know — we also need to work out how journalism itself can shape the business models that sustain it.
Jacqui Park is excited about the opportunities to reinvent journalism. She is a journalist, innovator and an advisor to new media ventures. She was founding editor of The Walkley Magazine where this piece was originally published in December 2017. She now publishes The Story newsletter on new media in Asia Pacific.
Rocco Fazzari is an independent multimedia artist. Follow his work on Instagram @roccofazzari.