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Jan. 11, 2019, 10:18 a.m.

Fighting information overload instead of contributing to it: Some 2019 predictions about business models for news

“Subscriptions are not salvation. But a diversified digital revenue mix for publishers, with quality advertising and reader monetization at its core, might be.”

Our end-of-year “Predictions for Journalism” package has grown and grown and grown since its first iteration back in 2011. For the 2019 iteration, we published more than 200, and it’s possible I am literally the only person alive to have read all of them.

So over the next few days, we’ll be running what I’m calling Prediction Playlists — collections of predictions centered around a particular theme. Hopefully they’ll give you a point of entry into what can be an intimidating pile of #content. Today’s theme: the business model — a.k.a. how do we make enough money to pay for all that journalism we produce?

By far the biggest topic of predictors thinking about business models was subscriptions and memberships. The collapse of the digital advertising marketplace for publishers has led most to realize that an increasing share of their revenues going forward will have to come directly from readers, in one way or another. Subscriptions won’t save journalism, but they’re the best option many publishers have in 2019.

Borja Bergareche, chief innovation officer at Vocento:

“Subscriptions are not salvation. But a diversified digital revenue mix for publishers, with quality advertising and reader monetization at its core, might be.”

That said, there are real questions about how well most digital news organizations will move from the old world to the new. To start with, will young people see news as something worth paying for?

Alexandra Svokos, an editor at ABC News:

“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.”

And if someone does decide to pony up for a subscription — will they sign up for two? Three? Subscription fatigue seems a few clicks away.

Brian Moritz, assistant professor of digital media production and online journalism at SUNY-Oswego:

“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 Darkness) and…”

Relying on readers’ money also means constantly pitching yourself and your value to your user and society writ large — and marketing has rarely been publishers’ strength.

Gabriel Snyder, former editor at The New Republic, Gawker, Newsweek, and The Atlantic:

“Some public-minded publications are beginning to sound like an NPR station during pledge week: An increasing amount of the work they produce seems to be about how important and vital it is that they continue to produce work.”

There’s still room for (and need for) a lot of innovation in paid-content models. The metered paywall and the hard paywall aren’t the only options available! For some publishers, a membership pitch that unlocks content for everyone will make sense.

Tim Carmody, newsletter writer for Kottke.org:

“The most powerful and interesting media model will remain raising money from members who don’t just permit but insist that the product be given away for free.”

So besides subscriptions, what are some potential new — or at least newly important — sources of revenue for publishers? Maybe we’ll develop products that fight information overload rather than contribute to it.

Carl Bialik, data science editor at Yelp:

“The companies that capitalize on the demand for less will be the ones that customize their news not only to their subscribers’ taste, but to what reporters and editors think really matters.”

Or the pathway from news story to Hollywood movie might become more important — I hear Hollywood still makes money.

Reyhan Harmanci, executive editor of Topic.com:

“The bidding wars over story options, typically a nice bonus check of a few hundred dollars, have created six- and seven-figure deals for writers and podcast producers.”

Or perhaps sports publishers will see big rewards from newly legalized sports betting. (A similar argument could be made about marijuana.)

Dan Shanoff, publishing strategist:

“If your company is trying to figure out how much to bet on sports gambling in 2019 and beyond, to borrow some industry jargon: ‘Take the over.'”

The U.S. has seen relatively robust funding for news projects from foundations — perhaps that trend will cross the Atlantic this year.

Adam Thomas, director of the European Journalism Centre:

“A tiny fraction of European foundation funding goes to core support for journalism, especially in comparison to the U.S. Yet all of those foundations rely on the enabling environment a robust media provides in order to deliver their programs.”

And maybe there’s still some blood left in that advertising stone — especially if we can shift from a reliance on stale display-ad products to something more interactive:

Tushar Banerjee, head of product at The Quint:

“Ad impressions and CTR numbers will become things of the past sooner than you think.”

The United States has long been comparatively averse to government funding of news — but perhaps the unmet information needs of communities will spawn more local governments to get involved:

Craig Aaron and Mike Rispoli of Free Press:

“When we start treating people not as consumers but as constituents, we’ll find new ideas, new allies, and new resources to reverse the downward spiral in local journalism and restore the public’s trust in the news.”

Though a similar process is currently unfolding in Canada, and not everyone’s optimistic about it.

Jesse Brown, publisher of Canadaland:

“The Canadian example will become a negative one, cited regularly by those arguing that governments should stay out of the news business and let the chips fall where they may.”

2019 could be a year when the shift from legacy to digital media — slowed a bit by Donald Trump’s own news habits — accelerates again.

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News:

“Donald Trump’s media diet, which is frozen in the 1980s, has pulled perceptions of the whole media industry — publishers, advertisers, politicians — into a kind of time warp.”

So what probably won’t work? Newspapers have limited their losses from canceling subscribers by raising the prices for those who remain — but that trick has a limited life expectancy.

John Garrett, founder and CEO of Community Impact Newspaper:

“The last five years of raising subscription prices will begin to slow down as newspaper executives begin to notice even their most loyal subscribers have a price they will not pay.”

The large digital media companies used to be able to plan on eventually being bought by a cable, phone, or old-line media company. That exit’s harder to see now.

Mike Isaac, technology reporter for The New York Times:

“Four years ago, if you were a BuzzFeed or a Vox, you’d just eye NBC as your exit path. Now that story isn’t as attractive.”

There were a number of predictors who, frankly, aren’t optimistic that anything will work particularly well.

Peter Bale, president of the Global Editors’ Network:

“A year of wrenching consolidation in the industry is ahead as venture capital runs out of patience with media investment and revenue flows almost solely to the platforms and ‘time-honored’ media brands.”

What most publishers are offering now just isn’t good enough to survive in a reader-revenue world.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism:

“Much of the news currently published online is simply not worth paying for. Some of it is hardly worth our fleeting attention, let alone hard-earned cash.”

Maybe the inevitable market failure of most journalism will force a broader rethinking of what a digital news ecosystem aimed at meeting public needs would look like.

Victor Pickard, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania:

“Those unconstrained by market ideology might dare to consider what a new, truly public, digital media system could look like in the United States and beyond.”

Or maybe we’ll just find ourselves missing the old days of clickbait and Chartbeat.

Gideon Lichfield, editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review:

“The attention economy that has been driving the media industry for much of the past decade may be about to give way to a more old-fashioned economy, in which the scarcest resource is once again people’s money, not their time.”

Illustration of “The Seer” by Adamastor Studio used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 11, 2019, 10:18 a.m.
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