2
0
1
9

Journalism doesn’t fit well in a funnel

“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.”

I believe subscriptions and memberships are a glint of good news in an otherwise troubled media landscape. They can be a revenue stream that more closely aligns the interest of publications and readers and, especially in the past two years, there seems to be awareness among readers that they get what they pay for when they rely only on free news.

Still, it’s easy, especially early on, to focus on the upside of new media business innovations rather than their potential downsides. Consider, for instance, Google AdSense, which when it launched in 2003 promised to allow any website to generate advertising revenue. “Now, thanks to automated ad sales, small publishers have a more viable hope of creating a business, and keeping independent voices,” enthused even the sharpest of observers surveying the ways technology was reshaping journalism.

What wasn’t so readily apparent fifteen years ago were the slideshows, click farms, eHows, fake news, and filter bubbles that were all enabled by revenues from programmatic ads — and small publishers are mostly struggling and have largely given up on relying on advertising money. There are reasons, too, to worry about how subscription revenue could move from savior to curse because of the tendency of people on the Internet to twist the logic of any money-making scheme into its most extreme, grotesque forms. (This is usually called “optimization.”)

In building digital subscription businesses, publishers are catching up to the hyper-competitive and well-developed e-commerce techniques of wringing money out of consumers online. This is often called “funnel thinking,” in which prospective customers are moved down the engagement line — from, say, sharing a meme on Facebook, to subscribing to a YouTube channel, to ultimately forking over a credit card number and making a purchase. The funnel is then relentlessly optimized for higher “conversion rates.” To see this in action, check your Instagram feed for the scammy ads for dubious gadgets from drop shippers who have mastered making slick videos for crap products.

In the next year, more publishers will jump into the subscription revenue pool and start assembling funnels of their own. But it’s already possible to see tensions between how a subscription businesses operates and the journalism it supports.

Partisan drift

In the wake of 2016, a number of publications reported a surge in subscribers. These outlets are all equally grateful for the reader support. But it has led newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, which have traditionally prized their objectivity and non-partisanship, to position themselves as bulwarks of the Resistance, ensuring the protection of the concept of truth during the Trump administration.

Internally, both papers are large organizations with strong and slow-to-change newsroom cultures. Still, there have already been reports of internal conflicts between those journalists who see their role as nonpartisan truthtellers and those who believe their mission is to promote social justice. However that debate is settled internally, externally both papers now have a significant number of subscribers who are liberals who saw their subscribing to a paper as a political act — and they’ll be quick to voice their disappointment (and possibly even cancel their subscriptions) if the paper does something they think doesn’t fit their politics.

Infinite marketing loops

At the mouth of many online commerce funnels is content marketing — content produced to be read and shared on various platforms, casting a wide net for people who might eventually convert into a sale of some other product or service. This is all fairly straightforward for purveyors of mattresses or business software. But for publishers of journalism, this creates a kind of conundrum, because the product is the content and the content is the product. That’s why most publications have put up metered paywalls rather than hard ones: Those 1 or 2 or 10 stories a user gets to read for free are an opportunity to convert readers into subscribers.

But what happens when those two functions are in conflict? Newsroom managers will have to decide between spending their resources on the kind of content that the metrics show are converting very well and the kind of content that isn’t. And anyone who has followed journalism for the last couple of decades probably has an inkling of how these conflicts usually get settled. Even now, 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.

Narrowing mandates

Many of the kinds of businesses that are good at “funnel thinking” are product agnostic. They can switch from selling diet pills to survival kits to watches, refashioning their business model wherever the margins and conversion rates take them. Publishers of journalism (usually) are more outcome-oriented: They’re in the business of creating journalism.

But the time-tested e-commerce methods have the potential to challenge that, especially if traditional journalism doesn’t convert into subscribers as much as other things publishers produce. An example: Slate has been one of the web’s premier homes for journalism for more than two decades, and it was an early innovator in subscriber revenue with its Slate Plus program. But if you were to judge Slate just by its “Join Slate Plus” page, you might get the impression that it’s primarily a podcasting company; the word “journalism” gets a single mention while “podcast” appears seven times. Would Slate lay off its staff of writers and editors who produce text stories in order to “pivot to podcasts”? I doubt its current leadership would — but that’s exactly the kind of thing “funnel thinking” would suggest if that’s where all their membership money is coming from.

Now repeat that mental exercise, but at a local newspaper that’s discovered its primary selling point for digital subscribers was its local sports coverage, or its recipe guides, or its crossword puzzles. Those might be great business opportunities, but it leaves journalism like metro coverage as a loss-leader, dependent on a cross-subsidy from an unrelated business function.

Again, I’m a believer in subscription and membership revenue models. But I think the best ways of avoiding these possible misalignments between subscriptions and journalism are to first be aware of the possibility that they can, in fact, become misaligned — and for those building subscription programs to keep their mission as journalists top of mind.

Gabriel Snyder is an editor who has held top positions at The New Republic, Gawker, Newsweek, and The Atlantic.

Sarah Stonbely   Mapping the local news ecosystem — with scale but detail

Ernie Smith   The year we step back from the platform

Mike Rispoli and Craig Aaron   Government funds local news — and that’s a good thing

Jake Shapiro   Podcasting is media’s slow food movement

Angilee Shah   The year news orgs say “yes” to real leaders

Patrick Butler   Measuring impact will increase audience trust

Shannon McGregor   More bogus embedded tweets in our stories

Stephanie Edgerly   It’s time to understand the un-audience

Craig Newmark   The end of “loudspeakers for liars”

John Garrett   You can’t raise prices forever

Alexis Lloyd & Matt Boggie   The year product leads media

Jeremy Gilbert   AI finally becomes helpful

Amy Schmitz Weiss   Local news isn’t where you thought it was

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   The most beautiful sentence in 2019 is “No.”

Julia Rubin   Meeting people where they are

M. Scott Havens   Time to swing for the fences

Rubina Madan Fillion   Fighting the reality of deepfakes

Gideon Lichfield   Goodbye attention economy, we’ll miss you

Michael Rain   The year of the culturally relevant curator

Rachel Glickhouse   Newsrooms will prioritize audience needs

Renée Kaplan   Our future could lie within our own organizations

Stefanie Murray   Local news wakes up and starts collaborating

Gabriel Snyder   Journalism doesn’t fit well in a funnel

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   A long, slow slog, with no one coming to the rescue

Steve Myers   From trying to cover it all to covering what matters

Nicholas Jackson   More transparency around newsroom decisions

Rebecca Searles   From silos to Swiss Army knife teams

Elite Truong   What do we owe the next generation?

Kevin Douglas Grant   A year to embrace journalism as public service

Ole Reißmann   The rise of vertical storytelling

Zuzanna Ziomecka   News leadership gets an overdue upgrade

Mike Caulfield   Ditch the media literacy cynicism and get to work

Jack Riley   Facebook refugees, from ad revenue to news habits

Thomas Hanitzsch   The rise of tribal journalism

Steve Henn   Smart speakers get smarter

Monique Judge   Committing to the truth, calling out lies

Claire Wardle   Forget deepfakes: Misinformation is showing up in our most personal online spaces

Carl Bialik   Fatigued news consumers will pay more for less news

Justin Kosslyn   Text hits a tipping point

Nisha Chittal   The homepage makes a comeback

Adam B. Ellick   Video forensic reporting goes mainstream — and local

Dave Burdick   Seeing our blind spots

Winny de Jong   Data journalism goes undercover

Mike Isaac   The old exit doors for digital media companies are closing

Mandy Jenkins   Fight the urge to run away from social media

Cherian George   Fake news wins in Asia

Steve Grove   A reckoning for tech’s work with news

Annie Rudd   A more intimate aesthetic of politics — on Insta

Millie Tran   There is no magic — you’ve got this

Pablo Boczkowski   Reimagining the media for post-institutional times

Moreno Cruz Osório   Damaged credibility and a new threat in Brazil

Nathalie Malinarich   Video — yes, video

Greg Emerson   Power to the user

Geetika Rudra   The year of actionable (local) journalism

Marie Shanahan   Newsrooms take the comments sections back from platforms

An Xiao Mina   The death of consensus, not the death of truth

Sue Robinson   Reporters go on the offensive

Darryl Holliday   Let’s talk about power (yours)

Jonathan Stray   More algorithmic accountability reporting, and a lot of it will be meh

Renan Borelli   Developing loyalty means developing your talent

Shalabh Upadhyay   A culture clash on India’s growing Internet

Alexandra Svokos   Good luck convincing us millennials to pay

Adam Smith   Platforms will have to help rebuild trust in news

Jonathan Gill   Publishers build a common tech platform together

Kristen Muller   Local news fails — in a good way

Alyssa Zeisler   We expand what (and how and who) we serve

Johannes Klingebiel   We all grow hooves

Joel Konopo   Influencers become the new liberated power in Africa

Knight Foundation   A year of local collaboration

Christa Scharfenberg and Vickie Baranetsky   The year of the lawsuit

Masuma Ahuja   Make foreign coverage less foreign

Elizabeth Jensen   Going where the Acela can’t take you

Sarah Alvarez   Simplify and redistribute

Andrea Faye Hart   Doing less harm, not just more good

Jeff Chin   We detox from Chartbeat

Zizi Papacharissi   Old interface, say hello to the new interface

Peter Bale   Venture capital runs out of patience

Reyhan Harmanci   Selling more stories to Hollywood

Rick Berke   The year of loyalty

Andrew Donohue   Voting rights becomes the new climate change

Jesse Brown   Canada’s subsidy for news backfires

Mariana Moura Santos   From pageviews to impact

Matthew Pressman   The battle over objectivity intensifies

P. Kim Bui   The misfits become the bosses

Callie Schweitzer   The rise of the conveners

Ben Werdmuller   The platform tide is turning

Peter Cunliffe-Jones   The focus of misinformation debates shifts south

Matt Skibinski   Quality and reliability are the new currencies for publishers

Borja Bergareche Sainz de los Terreros   Entering a more balanced era

Errin Haines   Say it with me: Racism

Victor Pickard   We will finally confront systemic market failure

Kawandeep Virdee   Media wants to take care of you

Logan Molyneux   Seeing social media for what it is

Carolina Guerrero   Spanish-language audio blows up

Charo Henríquez   Pivot to journalism

Seth C. Lewis   The gap between journalism and research is too wide

Andrew Ramsammy   The great re-pivot to audio

Ben Smith   The pendulum starts to swing back

John Saroff   The pivot to reader revenue’s unintended consequences

Simon Rogers   Data journalism becomes a global field

Salem Solomon   Correcting our corrections

Elisabeth Goodridge   Yes, they signed up — but our job’s not over

Jennifer Dargan   You don’t build diversity through one-off training sessions

Zainab Khan   Publishers whose products can stand up to social media giants will win

Bill Grueskin   Toward a symphony model for local news

Libby Bawcombe   Haikus of the news

Carrie Brown-Smith   Advocating a healthy civic life is no journalistic crime

Ruth Palmer and Benjamin Toff   From news fatigue to news avoidance

Don Day   Timewalls and other reader revenue experiments

Seema Yasmin   We will create our own spaces

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Podcasting battles East Coast bias

Josh Schwartz   A pullback from platforms and a focus on product

Francesco Zaffarano   Towards a rethinking of journalism on social media

Sue Cross   Return of the water cooler

Jared Newman   AI-generated fakes launch a software arms race

Matt Karolian   Publishers come to terms with being Facebook’s enablers

Kainaz Amaria   We consider who’s behind the camera

Frank Chimero   Leave the phone at home and put news on your wrist

Ariel Zirulnick   Participation gets professional

Nico Gendron   Reaching Generation Z beyond the coasts

Jenée Desmond-Harris   It finally sinks in that some people aren’t white

Soo Oh   Just showing our work isn’t enough

Kjerstin Thorson   Time to get mad about information inequality (again)

Rachel Davis Mersey   Local news goes minimalist

Matt Waite   “I went to Node.js because I wished to live deliberately”

Catalina Albeanu   Being responsible for what we don’t know

Alexandra Borchardt   Newsrooms need to build trust with their journalists, not just the audience

Robert Hernandez   Racists and sexists get replaced

Kelsey Proud   Journalism becomes the escape

Jean Friedman Rudovsky   Cross-newsroom collaborations strengthen communities

Kate Myers   Journalism continues to be bad for democracy

Tshepo Tshabalala   Ahead of African elections, unlock partnerships with fact-checkers

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau   A more sincere definition of “community”

Angèle Christin   Algorithms and the reflexive turn

Brian Moritz   The subscription-pocalypse is about to hit

Pia Frey   You can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis

Candis Callison   Learn from Indigenous journalists on covering climate change

Heather Bryant   We are responsible for how we use our power

Rodney Gibbs   A bright — and young — year for audio

Umbreen Bhatti   The story doesn’t end for the people we quote

Axie Navas   The traffic hunt, CMS battle, and magazine identity crises loom

Laura E. Davis   More access, but not that kind

Frank Mungeam   Tonight at 11: News, sports, and climate change

Cindy Royal   For journalism curriculum to change, its faculty needs disruption

Robin Kwong   Tech shouldn’t be the only field pollinating “news nerds”

Glyn Mottershead and Martin Chorley   When a tech company pulls the plug on your story

Rishad Patel   A design system for responsible publishing

Mario García   The rise of content “pilots”

Tamar Charney   Seriously: What do you do for people?

Tyler Fisher   This is journalism’s do-or-die moment

Emma Carew Grovum   The year of the loyal reader

Michael Grant   More newsrooms experiment their way to success

Meredith Artley   Huge demand for…anything but politics

Elizabeth Dunbar   Local reporters reflect on what’s not important

Manoush Zomorodi   Tech will do for information overload what it did for mindfulness

Jim Friedlich   Meet Citizen Kane 2.0

Raney Aronson-Rath   We learn “digital” doesn’t have to mean “short”

Kyra Darnton   A shift to depth in video

Adam Thomas   In Europe, foundations invest in news

Heba Aly   The rise of international nonprofit news

Efrat Nechushtai   Journalism wants to be your friend, not your teacher

Talia Stroud   Engaging people across lines of difference

Rebecca Lee Sanchez   We are all actors in the running rampant of political theater

Celeste LeCompte   Local news needs local conversation to survive

Joshua Darr   The nationalization of political news will accelerate

John Biewen   Podcasts keep getting better

Nikki Usher   Three ways national media will further undermine trust

Alberto Cairo   A year of uncertainty and confidence

Whitney Phillips   Our information systems aren’t broken — they’re working as intended

Cristi Hegranes   A year to invest in the security of local journalists

LaToya Drake   Listen up: New stories, new storytellers

Hossein Derakhshan   The news is dying, but journalism will not — and should not

Bill Adair   Another year fighting Trump’s falsehoods

Chase Davis   We can acknowledge what we don’t know

Colleen Shalby   Representation becomes more than a talking point

Linda Solomon Wood   The year of the climate reporter

Dan Shanoff   Bet on sports gambling

Sarah Marshall   A return to destination journalism

Almar Latour   Reported facts, weaponized in service of action

Ståle Grut   A new dawn for 3D tech in journalism

Joanne McNeil   Building a digital hospice

Jesse Holcomb   We’ll get better at making the case for local journalism

A.J. Bauer   The coming splintering of conservative media

Joe Amditis   Give the audience a seat at the table

Dheerja Kaur   A focus on problems, not platforms

Tim Carmody   Unlocking the commons

Mat Yurow   Content competition from the tech companies

Cory Bergman   Journalism as a technology service

Mandy Velez   Putting the social back in social media

Julie Posetti   The year of the fight back

james Wahutu   Think 2018 was bad? Wait until you see 2019

Eric Nuzum   The year of the DIY podcast network

Elva Ramirez   News — but make it cinematic

Amy King   We should listen to the kids (especially on Instagram)

Lauren Katz   Community becomes a core newsroom value

Eric Ulken   The year you actually start to like your CMS

Taylor Lorenz   Personal branding is more powerful than ever

Heather Chaplin   Agree we’re partisan — for the democratic system

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Readers are only getting started

Francesco Marconi   The year of iterative journalism

Becca Aaronson   From bridge roles to product thinkers

Jonas Kaiser   Catching up with “Neuland”

Simon Galperin   After capitalism’s fire, journalism’s secondary succession

Tushar Banerjee   Interactive ads will be the new face of display advertising

Hearken   Pivot to people