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Good luck convincing us millennials to pay

“Yes, yes, yes, journalism is about integrity and spreading information, but it’s also workers creating products, and consumers have been lucky to get this far into the internet age without having to pay much.”

In 2019, I expect to see more consolidation, delineation, and bundling within digital media. These are overly-glamorous words for relatively old-fashioned strategies, which fits neatly into what I predict 2019 will bring: exciting words for simple products — in other words, marketing to consumers, particularly among younger brands not already doing so.

At this point, it seems clear that ads are not going to reliably drive profits in the digital media age. What we’ve been seeing over the past few years is the burst of the digital media bubble, with younger, unsustainable companies having either imploded or been eaten up by a bigger company (or both). I expect more of this will go on into 2019 as the market figures itself out.

Without ad-driven money, the industry is turning towards subscription and membership models, as we’ve seen from New York magazine and BuzzFeed in 2018. I wouldn’t be surprised if your reading got stopped by more paywalls as the year went on. Subscriptions are an obvious way to make money, provided you’ve built a brand readers find indispensable and that readers aren’t overloaded with so many subscriptions already. This branding is especially important when it comes to selling to millennial readers, who have grown up essentially not having to pay for news.

That’s where this idea of “delineation,” as I’m calling it, comes in. Let’s take New York magazine as a case study. If a reader is asked to subscribe to New York, that reader may say “but I’m already subscribed to The Atlantic and The New Yorker” or “why?” But if a reader is asked to pay just one subscription price for The Cut, Vulture, The Intelligencer, and Strategist, that reader may be more inclined to say “what a deal!” or “fine.” This is a strategy I’m expecting from middle-grade establishment publications: building out a variety of “brands” so that when they ask for money from readers, it’s not just for “one thing,” but “many things,” even though it’s really just one thing, hiding behind branding.

“Bundling” can mean that — one subscription for all New York brands — or it can mean packaging a variety of actually separate products into one subscription. I suspect this could happen with streaming services paired with written publications, since streaming faces similar subscription fatigue barriers. Would you rather pay for a Hulu subscription or a Hulu subscription that also gives you access to 50 Vox articles a week? Those separate products can also be from the same company — see, for instance, the New York Times’ excellent Cooking product, which is functionally different from the paper.

Ultimately, this isn’t “new” so much as it is old-fashioned business, i.e. selling newspapers. Yes, yes, yes, journalism is about integrity and spreading information, but it’s also workers creating products, and consumers have been lucky to get this far into the internet age without having to pay much as news sites (especially younger ones) have been largely giving away products for free. At a certain point, all the tricks a company can think up — ads, VC funding, branded partnerships, events, data collection — won’t be enough to consistently prop a company up without consumers explicitly paying for products.

“Paying for journalism,” as a concept, is a harder sell to millennials considering both the news environment we’ve grown up with and that we’re, on average, poorer than past generations. It will doubtlessly take convincing, both on an individual publication level (convincing a reader you’re indispensable) and on an industry level (making paying for news products the norm again), but if Netflix and Hulu could get millennials to stop illegally downloading episodes with their enticements of quality and reliability, news media can, too. (The overt moralization of the industry may also help here, from a capitalist sales standpoint: Pay for news because #democracydiesindarkness.)

My work doesn’t involve strategy — I just edit news articles and follow the industry, especially as it has personally impacted my career at digital-only publications — but I’m preparing to decide which publications I feel are worth my money as a reader and which I could live without, and I’d suggest you do the same.

Alexandra Svokos is an editor at ABC News.

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