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The pivot to reader revenue’s unintended consequences

“There will be tension between the need to satisfy the subscriber with the information she expects while still challenging her with the opposing views that she needs to make sense of the world.”

This pivot is real. In 2018 countless creators, ranging from market leaders like The New York Times and Fox News to individuals leveraging platforms like Patreon, developed products focused on providing more value to and earning direct revenue from readers.

The global media market is estimated to grow from $850 billion to $1 trillion over the next few years and market research expects user-based revenue such as subscriptions to be the largest part of that. This is good news. Publishers developing subscription strategies will be able to provide consistency to their balance sheets. That strength will make it easier for them to deliver on their journalistic missions.

As we embrace this pivot, we can’t forget that an ad-supported model did support multiple generations of objective journalists. In the ad world, reach was always the most critical business metric in all forms of news media. It is easy to take for granted how nicely that business metric dovetailed with the notion of a straightforward, objective, unbiased point-of-view. Katherine Graham famously steered a Washington Post that did not publish a presidential endorsement until 1976, so deep was the need to be impartial.

In a subscription world, meeting the daily expectations of each reader on a consistent basis becomes essential. That means delivering a product that is high quality, that delights and informs, and that performs as a consumer product.

Those expectations can sometimes create unintended consequences. We have all seen the “Cancel My Subscription” tweets from angry readers when publishers release pieces (particularly in opinion sections) that challenge their predominant political orientation. In this new world, there will be tension between the need to satisfy the subscriber with the information she expects while still challenging her with the opposing views that she needs to make sense of the world.

How will this end? I predict that the global news ecosystem will end up looking a lot more like Britain’s. In the U.K., newsstand sales have been the traditional revenue stream. That intense daily competition for revenue has historically forced publishers like The Telegraph and The Guardian to adopt a more consistent point of view to differentiate themselves from newsstand competitors.

The British paradigm deservedly has its critics (this is, after all, the business model that gave us “Page 3 Girls” and perfected the salacious headline), but in 2018 a Central London newsstand still has a far more diverse array of choices, both local and national, than one in Midtown Manhattan. If our digital news landscape looks like that in a few years, the pivot will have been worth it.

John Saroff is the CEO of Chartbeat.

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