Stop Press: How Covid-19 has proved the inevitability of the reader-funded news model
Stop Press

Stop Press: How Covid-19 has proved the inevitability of the reader-funded news model

A weekly newsletter to help you track the news media ecosystem and make sense of it.

By Chitranshu Tewari

Published on :

Welcome to the first ever Stop Press, our all-new newsletter to break down the trends, innovations and news on the media ecosystem. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Saturday.

Lead

Scroll, Quint, the Wire, Alt News, Swarajya, the News Minute, India Spend, Boom Live... No, I am not trying to list all the digital news publishers in India. What puts them in the same bracket is that they all ask for reader contribution.

Over the last few months, publishers have rushed to ask their readers to support them. While Quint started its support programme in 2019, the News Minute launched its membership just days ago.

It’s been a while since the reader-funded news model was the new kid on the revenue block. though. Subscriptions or contributions from readers is now a primary revenue stream for publishers as big as NYT and the Guardian, and as niche as Politico.

The reason: Big platforms like Facebook and Google have sucked the ad dollars of the media ecosystem. For most sites, more than half the traffic is via social platforms: they help the publishers reach and engage with a scale of audience that publishers could never manage on their own, but at a cost.

Despite that, most Indian digital publishers have continued to rely on Google, Facebook and native ads to push their top-line growth. While their international counterparts were honing subscription pitches, most desi publishers were investing in brand studios and creative teams to design and sell ads, packaged between news stories.

Covid-19 has burst that bubble. With businesses and consumer activity taking a hit, marketing and promotional budgets are always the first to be chopped. Even brands as big as Coca-Cola have massively cut their marketing and ad spends.

The best indicator of this is the number of pages in newspapers. With almost no ads to sell, dailies like the Times of India have gone from upwards of 30 pages to 12 pages.

But wait, aren’t more people reading news now?

Yes but that doesn’t mean more ad revenue.

Most sites have seen a sharp surge in traffic and interest in their stories. But with the economic slowdown, cuts in the marketing budgets of brands has ensured that publishers can’t leverage that.

Vox, a publisher that ushered in some much-needed focus on explanatory journalism, has now turned to reader contribution. Here's how they explained it:

"It’s true, more people are turning to Vox right now than at any other time in our six-year existence.

"Vox provides all of its content free — and we are committed to keeping it that way. Vox Media has a very diversified business, but without a subscription product or a paywall at Vox, advertising is still a major revenue source for our network.

"But while the economic crisis continues, advertising dollars will shrink as the public need for our service grows. That’s why we are turning to you, our loyal audience, for support."

Whatever little doubts were left about the efficacy and inevitability of the reader-based model, Covid-19 has put to rest. With so many more people turning to news to stay informed and make sense of the ongoing crisis, readers will pay for journalism that adds value to their life. Case in point: the New York Times. Adding a record number of digital subscribers, it crossed six million subscribers.

In an ad-based model, on the other hand, with limited ad spends, advertisers are too wary of putting their logos next to stories that cover sickness and death.

That publishers are turning to reader-supported models is a healthy sign for media and democracy. Because like we at Newslaundry say, when advertisers pay, advertisers are served, and when the public pays, the public is served.

A hat-tip to all Newslaundry subscribers who believed in, and saw the value in, reader-supported news models before anyone in India did, over four years.

If all outlets turn reader-supported, isn’t everyone vying for support from the same set of people?

Yes and no. Unlike overseas, we in India are still new to paying for news. It doesn’t help that outlets have accustomed us to getting news for free as long as they can sell our attention to advertisers. However, with time, more and more people will see the value of paying for independent news sources. Especially at a time of a pandemic, when misinformation and false news are not just a threat to democracy but can prove fatal.

That said, unlike legacy publishers, digital publishers don’t need to build large operations to produce all sorts of content under the sun. As long as a publisher can stand out with its content offering and have a group of just enough people who support it, it will sustain itself.

The best thing about a reader-funded model? Unlike the ad model where you need millions of page views/readers for ad dollars, you can survive with a few thousand, not millions of, contributing readers.

Homebrewed

"At the heart of the deal lie the careers of many journalists, who face a broken job market.": Anto T Joseph spoke to Raghav Bahl to break down and bring you deets on the Quint-Gaurav Mercantiles-Haldiram deal.

“The media advisor to Yogi Adityanath has emerged unwittingly as a fundraiser for The Wire”: Manisha Pande spoke with Siddharth Varadarajan to discuss the sequence of events that led to the Uttar Pradesh government’s FIR against The Wire.

The Indian Newspaper Society has threatened to take legal action against those who circulate an e-paper for free. Anto T Joseph weighs in on whether it's ethical to threaten readers with legal action when editors and platforms themselves circulated the pdfs as home delivery halted.

Since the nationwide lockdown, at least 24 mediapersons have been impeded from doing their work. Ayush Tiwari reports on how Sections 188 and 505 of the Indian Penal Code are being used by state governments to crack down on journalists.

Three journalists from Kashmir won the Pulitzer. From muted coverage in newspapers to the “anti-national” spiel on TV, Ayan Sharma on how the media covered it.

Chug it out

“Even in a liberal democracy like Australia’s, media freedom is easy to lose — and can be hard to get back”: Gary Dickson and Margaret Simons on the lessons we can learn from the Australian media's fight for press freedom.

Globally, finance and business, not politics, is the top news category in times of coronavirus. The fact, Covid-19 has led to a massive economic impact, and it's starting to show up in news coverage too.

Catch up

Facebook has announced a global, independent oversight board. With members that include journalists, legal scholars and a Nobel Laureate, it will “decide what content Facebook should allow or remove, based on respect for freedom of expression and human rights.” Read what Alan Rusbidger, the Guardian's former editor, has to say on why he joined the board.

YouTube is developing a tool where publishers can sell subscriptions to their own properties through YouTube channels. Finally.

The list of news outlets with layoffs, pay cuts, and furloughs continues to swell. Viacom 18, one of India’s largest media ventures, is the latest addition. The list already includes Quint, the Indian Express, NDTV, the Hindustan Times, the Times of India, and News Nation.

Resources

What if readers of a publisher had key reports and product launches marked in their calendar, along with their work and personal events? Cory Schouten, a new formats editor at the Wall Street Journal, on how WSJ’s calendar helps readers plan for news.

As revenue sources shrink, newsrooms are seeking out grants and emergency funding to power their work. What funds are out there? What are the ways to ask for it? Well, Splice has an upcoming session to answer those questions. Register here for free.

*****

What did you think of the first edition of Stop Press? Do you have feedback or ideas on how we can do better? Or sections we can add? Tweet to me or write to me at chitranshu@newslaundry.com

Most media commentary and analysis is usually on editorial subjects, or cold numbers tracking the media industry. Product and the economics of the ecosystem are mostly missed out on. Stop Press aims to bridge that gap.

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