Better, less read, and less trusted

“As paywalls get firmer, total audiences may decline. It’s quality news, but not for everyone. Given their current funding guidelines, foundations are part of the same problem, not the antidote.”

Increasing subscription revenues will free some of our best national media from dependence on mass audience advertising. But at what cost?

For decades, media critics have lamented American journalism’s over-reliance on advertising and pointed to Europe’s reader-funded press as the better alternative. Less than a decade ago, American newspapers on average depended on advertising for more than 80 percent of their revenues. Since then, many newspapers have moved closer to a 50-50 proposition, and The New York Times now earns more than 60 percent of its revenues from subscriptions. In early December, the Times doubled-down on this approach by reducing the number of monthly free articles available to non-subscribers from 10 to 5.

The upside of the subscription model is that readers are only going to shell out money for something they really want or need. This puts a premium on the highest quality journalism. Indeed, some of the world’s best commercial media are audience rather than advertiser supported. For example, in France, 130,000 monthly subscribers are the sole support for Mediapart’s outstanding investigative reporting.

The downside is that readers who pay premium prices may also come to equate quality journalism with news that reinforces their deeply held beliefs, creating pressures for a news organization to hew to a consistent political line — likely liberal, given the partisan leanings of most heavy news consumers.

Another downside is that subscriber-oriented news caters to high-income, high-education elites. As paywalls get firmer, total audiences may decline. It’s quality news, but not for everyone. Given their current funding guidelines, foundations are part of the same problem, not the antidote.

We should not be surprised that the majority of Americans left outside of this supposedly virtuous circle will come to feel even more alienated and distrustful of media that exclude them.

Meanwhile, while liberal media draw their circles ever tighter around themselves, conservatives are fighting to extend their mass reach: Witness Rupert Murdoch’s push to create advertising networks that will challenge those of Facebook and Google, or Sinclair’s takeover of local television news — still the major news source for most Americans.

What’s missing in the U.S. is what always exists alongside Western Europe’s reader-supported press: taxpayer-supported public service broadcasting — think BBC in England, ARD in Germany, or SVT in Sweden. Large-scale public media ensure that every citizen is exposed to high quality media content, raising the overall level of public knowledge. America’s underfunded and politically pressured PBS and NPR are simply not up to the job.

In short: The only way to avoid the democratic death spiral I’ve described above is to give up the illusion that there is a purely commercial solution to American journalism’s civic crisis.

Rodney Benson is professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University.

Laura E. Davis   Writing answers before you know the question

Tanya Cordrey   Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

Taylor Lorenz   Social and media will split

Nikki Usher   The year of The Washington Post

Ray Soto   VR reaches the next level

Hossein Derakhshan   Television has won

Dannagal G. Young   Stop covering politics as a game

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

Sydette Harry   Listen to your corner and watch for the hook

Carrie Brown-Smith   Transparency finally takes off

Federica Cherubini   The rise of bridge roles in news organizations

Marcela Donini and Thiago Herdy   Collaboration is the way forward for Brazilian journalism

Corey Ford   The empire strikes back

Charo Henríquez   Training is an investment, not an expense

L. Gordon Crovitz   Serving readers over advertisers

Jim Moroney   Newspapers have to be good enough for readers to pay for

Kim Fox   Audience teams diversify their approach

Rodney Gibbs   Tech workers turn to journalism

Susie Banikarim   R.I.P. Pivot to Video (2017–2017)

Heather Bryant   Building the ecosystems for collaboration

Amie Ferris-Rotman   More female reporters abroad (please)

Matt Carlson   Attacks on the press will get worse

Debra Adams Simmons   And a woman shall lead them

Mandy Velez   texting is lit rn, fam

Jesse Holcomb   Information disorder, coming to a congressional district near you

Paul Ford   Go global

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

Michelle Ferrier   The year of the great reckoning

Cindy Royal   Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

Alastair Coote   The year of self-improvement

Sam Ford   The year of investing in processes

Borja Echevarría   TV goes digital, digital goes TV

Edward Roussel   Eyes, ears, and brains

Zizi Papacharissi   Women come back

Renée Kaplan   The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

Kelsey Proud   No, no, no

Yvonne Leow   The rise of video messaging

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Fortifying social media from automated inauthenticity

Niketa Patel   Live journalism comes of age

Jessica Parker Gilbert   Design connects storytelling and strategy

Imaeyen Ibanga   Longform video leads the way

Damon Krukowski   Reviving the alt-weekly soul

Cory Haik   Suffering from realness, pivoting to impact

P. Kim Bui   The reckoning is only beginning

Raney Aronson-Rath   Transparency is the antidote to fake news

Jacqui Cheng   Retailers move into content

Rodney Benson   Better, less read, and less trusted

Trushar Barot   The Jio-fication of India

Monika Bauerlein   The firehose of falsehood

Nicholas Quah   Stop talking trash about young people

Lanre Akinola   Making noise is not a strategy

Mary Meehan   Real lives are at stake in rural areas

José Zamora   Revenue-first journalism

Eric Ulken   The year local publishers get smart(er) about change

Pia Frey   Address users as individuals

Corey Johnson   The pro-fact resistance

Nathalie Malinarich   Peak push

Marie Gilot   No assholes allowed

Francesco Marconi   The year of machine-to-machine journalism

Kristen Muller   The year of the voter

Andrew Haeg   The year journalists become relationship builders

Basile Simon   We need better career paths for news nerds

Mary Walter-Brown   Show a little vulnerability

Vanessa K. DeLuca   Women’s voices take center stage

Andrew Ramsammy   The year ownership mattered

Umbreen Bhatti   The trust problem isn’t new

Sam Sanders   Shine the light on ourselves

Luke O'Neil   The end is already here

Matt DeRienzo   A recession, then a collapse

Jennifer Choi   Standing up for us and for each other

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Publishing less to give readers more

Helen Havlak   Keywords, not publishers, power the world’s biggest feeds

Steve Grove   The midterms are an opportunity

Tamar Charney   We get serious about algorithms

Jim Brady   With the people, not just of the people

Amy King   Let’s amplify visual voice

Bill Keller   A growing turn to philanthropy

Ståle Grut   Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

Evie Nagy   Pivot to mobile video frustration

Sally Lehrman   Trust comes first

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán   The editorial meeting of the future

Jamie Mottram   From pageviews to t-shirts

Amy Webb   Listen to weak signals

Richard J. Tofel   The platforms’ power demands more reporters’ attention

Mariana Moura Santos   Think local, act global

Rick Berke   Value is the watchword

Matt Thompson   Here come the attention managers

Millie Tran and Stine Bauer Dahlberg   (Hint: It’s about your brand)

C.W. Anderson   The social media apocalypse

Cristina Wilson   The year of the Instagram Story

Jassim Ahmad   Thriving on change

Mariano Blejman   News games rule

Dan Newman   A return to trust

Molly de Aguiar   Good journalism won’t be enough

Alfred Hermida   Going beyond mobile-first

Mario García   Storytelling finally adapts to mobile

Emily Goligoski   Looking beyond news for inspiration

An Xiao Mina   Memes and visuals come to the fore

Matt Boggie   The intellectual equivalent of the Dead Sea

Sara M. Watson   Feeds will open up to new user-determined filters

Kinsey Wilson   Facebook and Google: Help out or pay up

Elizabeth Jensen   Show your work

Manoush Zomorodi   Self-help as a publishing strategy

Tracie Powell   The muting of underserved voices

Hannah Cassius   The year of the echo-chamber escapists

Sue Schardt   Jump the niche

Burt Herman   Things get real

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   Skepticism and narcissism

Monique Judge   Letting black women tell their own stories

Almar Latour   Conquering calm

Lam Thuy Vo   Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

Caitria O'Neill   The new court of public opinion

Christopher Meighan   Passive partnership is in the rearview

Joanne McNeil   Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

Michael Kuntz   The only pivot that might work

Juliette De Maeyer   A responsible press criticism

Jarrod Dicker   Honesty in advertising

S. Mitra Kalita   The arc of news and audience

Kathleen McElroy   Building a news video experience native to mobile

Nancy Watzman   Know thy TV

Usha Sahay   Wallets get opened

Rubina Madan Fillion   Unlocking the potential of AI

Emma Carew Grovum   Newsroom culture becomes a priority

Mi-Ai Parrish   Blockchain and trust

Tim Carmody   Watch out for Spotify

Kyle Ellis   Let’s build our way out of this

Mike Caulfield   Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

Raju Narisetti   Mirror, mirror on the wall

Aron Pilhofer   We can’t leave the business to the business side any more

David Skok   Finding an information-life balance

Dan Shanoff   You down with OTT? (Yeah, DTC)

Felix Salmon   Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

Alan Soon   The rise of start of psychographic, micro-targeted media

Joyce Barnathan   It will be harder to bury the news

Julia B. Chan   Looking for loyalty in all the right places

Justin Kosslyn   The year journalists become digital security experts

Dheerja Kaur   Fun with subscription products

Frédéric Filloux   External forces

Errin Haines Whack   At the ballot, it’s time to count black women

Jennifer Coogan   The future is female

Carlos Martínez de la Serna   The new journalism commons

Lucas Graves   From algorithms to institutions

Ruth Palmer   Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

Feli Sánchez   The year for guerrilla user research

Alexios Mantzarlis   Moving fake news research out of the lab

Tanzina Vega   It’s time for media companies to #PassTheMic

Caitlin Thompson   Podcasting models mature and diversify

Jake Levine   The return to now

Alice Antheaume   Are you fluent in AI?

Doris Truong   Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

Neha Gandhi   Filler killers

Ariana Tobin   Too tired to tap

Rachel Davis Mersey   AI, with real smarts

Daniel Trielli   The rich get richer, the poor scramble

Michelle Garcia   Navigating journalistic transparency

Craig Newmark   Working together toward sustainable solutions

Adam Thomas   Sharing is caring: The year of the mentor

Kawandeep Virdee   Zines had it right all along

Eric Nuzum   Beyond the narrative arc

Sarah Marshall   Loyalty as the key performance indicator

John Keefe   Scooped by AI

Will Sommer   The year local media gets conservative

Andrew Losowsky   The year of resilience

Claire Wardle   Disinformation gets worse

Mira Lowe   The year of the local watchdog

Nushin Rashidian   Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

Pablo Boczkowski   The rise of skeptical reading

Pete Brown   Push alerts, personalized

Jared Newman   Venture funding and digital news don’t mix

Julia Beizer   A longer view on the pivot

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Women of color will reclaim and monetize our time

Miguel Castro   The arrival of the impact producer

Joanne Lipman   Journalists inventing revenue streams

Rachel Schallom   Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

Vivian Schiller   Pivot to tomorrow

Brian Lam   Sketchy ethics around product reviews