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The subscription-pocalypse is about to hit

“You can’t expect people to subscribe to their local paper (which is vital to democracy, we tell them) AND The New York Times and the Washington Post (because Democracy Dies in the Dark) AND…”

How many things are you subscribed to right now?

How many news organizations or writers or blogs or podcasts do you pay for every month?

How many do you plan on being subscribed to at this time next year?

The growth of the subscription model has been one of the biggest developments in online journalism in the past few years. In the sports world, where my research is situated, this is most clearly seen by the growth of The Athletic, the subscription-only site that’s expanded into every major pro market in the U.S. and in November received $40 million in venture capital funding.

But in 2019, it feels like there’s a bit of a reckoning coming. There’s a subscription-pocalypse looming. And newspapers are going to get hit by it.

The subscription model makes a lot of sense for publishers. The advertising-based model that supported the industry for 100 years doesn’t work in a digital world where Facebook and Google swallow nearly 60 percent of all online ad revenue.

A subscription model provides a steady stream of income that is not reliant on traffic. In theory, this incentivizes better stories because publications don’t have to chase clicks. This is The Athletic’s model and it’s working well for them.
But the answer for newspapers is not to throw everything into a subscription model. In fact, the subscription-pocalypse is a potential two-pronged problem for newspapers.

The first lies in 50-years of institutionalized practices. What we’re seeing in the digital world is that subscription models make the most sense when they target readers of a specific writer, topic or voice.

The implicit promise of a subscription site is that you are getting something worth paying for, something you can’t get anywhere else. It’s what my friend Dr. Andy Billings called the HBO model — as long as it has one thing you can’t live without, you’ll keep paying for it.

The problem for newspapers is the idea of giving people something they have to have. Newspapers are mass media outlets, which mean they have to reach a broad audience. In sports, that means they have to have a game story because somebody might not know who won. That’s not the audience that a subscription-only site is after.

And that leads to the second potential problem for newspapers. Eventually, consumers’ subscription budgets hit a wall. We can’t assume people are going to subscribe to everything. You can’t expect people to subscribe to their local paper (which is vital to democracy, we tell them) AND The New York Times and the Washington Post (because Democracy Dies in the Dark) AND Netflix AND Hulu AND HBO Go AND The Athletic AND ESPN Plus AND their favorite podcast on Patreon AND …

You get the idea.

How many things are you subscribed to?

How many will you be subscribed to one year from now?

The subscription-pocalypse is coming.

If you’re running a newspaper, what are you doing to make sure you make the cut in that crowded field? Obligation isn’t enough.

Brian Moritz is an assistant professor of digital media production and online journalism at SUNY-Oswego and the author of Sports Media Guy.

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