To pay or not to pay for your news?

broken-news-pay

The news is broken. More people are feeling alienated from the journalism they see. Less people are finding coverage particularly trustworthy or even relevant. And few if any are feeling like the news leaves them in a better place.

It’s something many of us are experiencing on a daily basis. You spend a few minutes browsing Facebook or looking through the tabloids, and come away not feeling enlightened and informed, but confused, lost, angry, and more confused.

New research from the Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University now gives us some reliable data to back up this phenomenon.

The research confirms there’s a widespread and growing concern about the news among the people, with more worrying about misinformation and seeking out reputable news sources.

This would seem like good news for independent journalists and media organisations, apart from one thing. Despite being fed up of Fake News and tired of polarising political stories, few are still willing to pay for their news.

The research showed that in general, most people are still more or less happy with the news they get for free. And even among those who would pay for it, they only want to sign up to one site, #subscriptionfatigue.

The fact is, there’s too much news already out there and too little time to read it, and people would rather put their expendable income toward entertainment services like Netflix and Spotify, rather than reading more about climate change and Trump.

But this would seem to support the case for paying for your news. With less time and more noise, premium platforms and paid tiers can provide high-quality information in ad-free and easy-to-use interfaces, giving readers news that’s much more valuable, relevant, and that leaves them in a better place.

At least in theory. To see if that really is the case, we’re going to look at three alternative approaches to news that are taking it from a free and ubiquitous commodity and turning it into a premium past time.

The Subscription News App: Apple News+

It’s recently been reported that publishers aren’t impressed with the revenue they’re getting from Apple News+. With one saying it’s one-twentieth of what Apple promised.

This sums up the kind of start that Apple News+, which a version of has long been installed on iPhones and which is based on the old Texture news app, is getting off to.

It can’t be said it wasn’t expected: several big-name publishers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have rejected their persistent offers for joining the subscription service, somehow recognising that the massive 50 percent cut Apple would take and the fact the app leaves them little opportunity to build their own followings and gather data on their viewers as clear warning signs.

But with many publishers struggling to maintain and increase their readership, the app does have the potential to introduce them to millions of new customers: should those customers actually sign up and enjoy using the app.

For $10 a month, the ‘Netflix for News’ service gives subscribers access to hundreds of major titles such as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Wall Street Journal, Wired, Time, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic, with many in a digital magazine form but most as downloadable PDF-like files akin to those in the early days of the iPad.

You’ll certainly save a lot of money using the app, but it does come at another cost. Only a portion of publisher’s content will be available on the app, and with its limited archive, all the digital articles will only be from the past three days. Add that to the fact Apple is in control of the algorithm for what you see and it is already producing and favouring its own content (much like Netflix and its Originals), and News+ could be more a launching pad for Apple’s move into the higher-margin and supply-chain-free world of entertainment and content than a great place to get your news.

The Traditional Paywall: NY Times, Wired, New Yorker

You know the feeling, you come across an article on Google or Twitter that you’d like to read, but when you visit the site, you realise you’ve already hit your limit for that month.

The article looks great, but it’s unlikely you’ll read many others before the month is up to make subscribing worth it, even at the insanely low prices of $6 for 12 weeks of unlimited access (New Yorker) or a full year for $10 (Wired.com).

Simply taking the time to give your personal data away and tie yourself to yet another service isn’t worth having access to even more articles you may or may not read.

I recently hit the paywall on NYTimes and decided to sign up; the offer of a free 4-week trial and then £4 a month thereafter (for the first year until it doubles) seemed almost too desperate to turn down.

You get the standard offering: unlimited articles, offline reading, a decent mobile app, but what really sold it was access to the “TimesMachine”,  a virtual version of the classic print edition of The New York Times published between 1981 and 2002.

Who knows if I’ll read it, but the novelty of getting something a little bit different was enough to close the deal. I still decided to cancel the payments so the subscription wouldn’t continue after the trial, which turned out to be a hassle as rather than just being able to click “Cancel Subscription”, you had to go through a deliberately-lengthy process of dealing with a customer service rep.

In an ideal world, we’d all be able to support the journalism we enjoy directly. Medium works on a model where you pay $5 a month for access to member-only articles, with the money distributed to writers depending on what you read and how much you liked (clapped) it. The blogging platform come social network Steemit pays content creators in the cryptocurrency ‘Steem’ according to how much their content has been upvoted.

Such initiatives are attractive because they allow readers to support journalism and writers on a micro level, in a “pay for what you have” as opposed to an “all you can eat” fashion. But they’re also little known and not widely adopted; like the example above, we like our news free and easy, and anything that prevents that, however small, is significant.

The Premium Offering: The Guardian

Despite being a traditional newspaper that is relatively new to the digital game, The Guardian has been praised for its innovative technology-based model as a way to support independent journalism.

Instead of relying on advertising or throwing up a subscription paywall that limits access to free content, much like most major publishers do today, The Guardian has an income model based on donations, memberships, subscriptions, and a premium app. Today it generates more income from its readers than advertisers and its revenues keep on growing.

Where Apple is somewhat faltering, The Guardian is excelling. Its premium app, which gives subscribers access to ad-free journalism on apps designed specifically for tablets and smartphones, has won several awards and is shaped by data from real users’ insights.

You can download the app without subscribing, but for £6 a month the premium tier is somewhat unique in that it actually offers features you wouldn’t normally get online and in the standard version. Of course, it’s ad-free, but it also offers an easy way to follow breaking news and sport as they play out in real time, as well as a Discover feature that learns what you like, access to specially-curated content, and the ability to download stories for offline reading.

Although Apple would claim its News+ app is a bid to give the people what they want and to combat the “subscription fatigue” of having too many sites and services to sign up to and pay for, The Guardian is proving that although this might be partially true, mostly it’s just Fakes News.

People don’t want more content, they want less bullshit. And that bullshit includes tech giants taking half the revenue of publishers and publishers locking 95 percent of their content behind paywalls. The Guardian example shows that as long as you have a dedicated audience, no matter how small, and you offer them a way to support you for that little something extra that improves the experience and their lives, they will be more than happy to sign up and pay.