Can bundle subscription services drive more readers to pay without eating into publishers’ revenue?
Stop Press

Can bundle subscription services drive more readers to pay without eating into publishers’ revenue?

More than 50 percent of readers see no point in paying for news.

By Chitranshu Tewari

Published on :

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If you’re reading this, you probably get your news not only from multiple sources but also in varying formats and mediums. You get a newspaper, follow a bunch of newsletters and journalists, and subscribe to a news organisation for deep dives on an industry that you may be interested in — business, tech, media, law, startups.

This is an online news consumption behaviour that is drastically different from a couple of years ago when we relied predominantly on social media for news, and paid no particular news publisher.

Today, readers pay for news for primarily two reasons: to get access to domain-specific paywall content, and ease of use in consuming ad-free news where one doesn’t have to close at least three pop-ups and navigate a website that was designed around ad placements. This has led to a community of readers who see and believe in the value of paying for news in exchange for an ad-free experience with stories they may not find elsewhere.

Despite the growing numbers of paywalls in Indian journalism, readers paying for journalism is still a minority. Even in Nordic countries and places like the United States, the percentage of readers who pay hovers around 20 percent.

This begs two questions:

Where can publishers find the next set of paying readers to further lessen their reliance on ads?

Do readers — who can’t or don’t want to pay multiple outlets, but are looking for affordable, well-rounded, quality news — have no recourse left?

Enter news subscription bundle services.

There’s Inkl, which for $9.99 (Rs 250 if you’re in India) a month brings you stories from world’s leading publishers like the New York Times. No ads, no banners, just news optimised for mobile delivery. There’s Audm and Curio for $7.99 a month, that bring longform and hand-picked stories in audio format recorded by voice actors.

From a reader’s perspective, as more and more paywalls pop up, bundle services bring affordable news (in lieu of paying multiple news outlets) to the table and a premium ad-free experience. For publishers, as ad revenue dries up, it’s a chance to get some revenue out of readers who may never pay them directly.

To get a sense of the number of non-paying news readers, 2017 research by Reuters found that more than 54 percent of readers see no point in paying for news. Revenue from those readers, even if just a slice (most distribute their subscription revenue, depending on the number of publisher stories a reader engages with) of what readers are paying the bundle services, is worth its buck.

What does it mean for online misinformation?

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, platforms like Facebook and Google have increasingly faced heat over their failure in content moderation and stopping the spread of misinformation on their platforms.

A key thing to note here is the inherent system design of the platform. By definition, these are open platforms based on network effect. This means that not only can anyone post or “make” news, but platforms are designed to evoke reactions, not drive reliable and newsworthy information.

In contrast, these bundle services handpick the publishers they partner with and list them on their app-website. This makes it an inherently closed platform, with stories only from credible and reputed publishers.

But wait, won’t bundle subscription services cannibalise publishers’ subscription revenue?

A reader’s wallet is limited and there’s only so many subscriptions one can pay for. By driving more readers to pay for news, a bundle service may well be cutting into publishers’ own subscribers.

That said, the pitch and offerings of bundle services like Inkl are very different from subscription news outlets. Bundle services offer content over multiple platforms across geographies optimised for user experience, while subscription outlets offer stories by a single publisher. But by design, they should complement each other.

Despite the best of journalism and the scale of a news organisation, there will always be a large chunk of the readerbase who will not subscribe for reasons ranging from affordability and user experience to the reach an outlet may have. A bundle subscription can bridge that gap to convert users who would never pay for news to paying users — and help publishers get a slice of it .

As Inkl’s Mishra said: “We don't recreate the publisher experience. We show you the article but if you want to get to a particular section, say the Money and Investing section in the Wall Street Journal, that's not something you can find. By creating the differentiation not just in content but in the user experience, it ensures that it's easier for users to understand what they are looking for and which service to use.”

While that may be true for a more mature market, it will be interesting to see it pan out in a country like India where readers are just beginning to pay for news. Throw in a service that has features unmatched by publishers — ad-free, longform stories narrated by voice actors, a user experience designed for phone affordability, multiple publications — who do you think a reader, who is considering paying for news for the very first time, will be more inclined towards?

Homebrewed

I spoke with Inkl’s CEO, Gautam Mishra about Inkl , Australia's plan to make platforms pay for news content, paywalls and micropayments.

TR Vivek on Mylapore Times and how it adapted in a pandemic.

Sattvik Mishra, Pragya Tiwari, Andre Borges, and Abhinandan Sekhri discuss what constitutes “viral content” and if news and content are synonymous.

Catch up

  • Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan and the Harper's letter

Bari Weiss, a conservative columnist at the New York Times, and Andrew Sullivan of New York magazine have resigned. Weiss said she was harassed and called a racist. The resignations added fuel to the ongoing debates around “liberal cannibalism”, the growing polarisation in news, and cancel culture. Around 150 eminent voices, including Noam Chomsky and Salman Rushdie, signed a letter on open debate and justice in Harper’s magazine.

Here are a few links to make sense on what’s happening, depending on your interest and the time you’re willing to invest: a Stop Press edition on the marketplace vs gatekeeper debate that ensued following Tom Cotton’s oped in NYT that first triggered this debate; episode 523 of Shekar Gupta’s Cut the Clutter if you want context on the Harper letter and the wedge in newsrooms; and Longform’s podcast interview with Dean Baquet, NYT's executive editor, to understand the inside and institutional view on the debate.

Earlier this month, China imposed a new national security law to meet the growing opposition to the Communist Party of China, punishments under which include life imprisonment. NYT has moved a third of its staff to Seoul, citing the new security law.

Layoffs continue across media outlets. The Guardian has cut 180 jobs (around 12 percent of its workforce). Vox, after furloughing 100 jobs in April, is preparing for another round of layoffs as it misses its revenue forecast.

  • The Print adds a Guardian-like reader contribution appeal to its stories

What do you think? As readers, what kind of appeals do you think are most effective or work the best? Do write in at chitranshu@newslaundry.com.

Chug it out

The evolution of BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti

“Interviews with more than two dozen people involved in BuzzFeed provide an inside look at how the company founder preferred to study how people shared articles and videos in the internet age than concentrate on making money”. A fascinating profile of BuzzFeed’s chief executive officer.

Platforms

Apple wants its own daily news podcast

Last month, the New York Times, whose daily podcast pulls millions of listeners each day, opted out of Apple News. Now, Apple wants to have an audio version of stories in its Apple News (free) and Apple News+ (subscription service). Two totally unrelated events.

🛠️ Resources and Tools

Planet Money Summer School

Planet Money is hands down one of the best economics podcasts that breaks down and explains the economy and issues around it. Its success lies in how it makes it super easy for anyone to follow and understand basic economics in everyday lives. And now it has a summer school! First episode: Understand “opportunity cost” and “sunk cost fallacy” through dating experiences.

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This is the tenth edition of Stop Press, primarily an exercise to learn more about the hows and whys of the news ecosystem. Apologies for the delay in putting this one out. You may have heard how putting together a newsletter is more work than it appears – well, the pain is real.

For suggestions and feedback, do write to chitranshu@newslaundry.com. If you liked what you read, do sign up below:

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