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2020
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7

A constraint of the reader-revenue model emerges

“Publications whose economic survival depends entirely on giving readers what they want may shy from giving them anything they might not want, or might not like.”

Asking readers to pay has become the go-to answer in digital news. In 2020, I think we’ll start to discover one constraint of that model.

Those of us old enough to have been around at the outbreak of the digital revolution will recall how much resistance there was initially to requiring regular readers to pay for content online. When The Wall Street Journal, where I then worked, started asking digital readers to subscribe and pay shortly after it launched 23 years ago, we were widely derided, told we just “didn’t get it” and that “information wants to be free.” (Even though Stewart Brand had also wisely said it wanted to be expensive.) Even 11 years and hundreds of thousands of online subscribers after that, Rupert Murdoch — who wanted desperately to own the Journal, despite his dislike of the most distinctive things about it — made clear that he would drop the paywall once he got control. When he did, and got a look under the hood at the facts of the business, he promptly reversed himself.

Eventually, the Financial Times developed a better mousetrap with its metering of readers, and The New York Times adopted the FT approach, to its great good fortune (especially in the Age of Trump); The Washington Post eventually followed suit. But what then emerged is that even metered paywalls won’t work unless you have high quality content — high quantities of it. That’s why many metropolitan newspapers haven’t found salvation in paywalls: Their best content is still excellent, but most simply don’t have enough of it.

For those who do — the FT, the Times, the Journal, perhaps a few others — subscribers will save these enterprises from what would otherwise be likely failure as their advertising business continues to evaporate.

In many ways, that’s great news. The worst fears of people like former Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones in his Losing the News won’t be realized. And the resulting transformation of these publications’ business model will make them more responsive to their readers.

But in that very responsiveness, there’s a phenomenon I think we should also view with concern. Publications whose economic survival depends entirely on giving readers what they want may shy from giving them anything they might not want, or might not like.

The first implication of this could be less news of the “eat your broccoli” variety. That’s not good, especially in a society that tends to ignore subjects until they become full-blown crises. (Think climate change, or opioids until fairly recently.) But the next implication is even worse — the part in which you avoid telling your customers about things they might not like.

Consider, for instance, how this might apply to politics. The traditional press justly derogates the head-in-the-sand nature of much of Fox News’ coverage of President Trump’s lies and self-dealing. But when their own business model depends entirely on subscriber renewals, could they withstand the temptation to temper scrutiny of the misdeeds of some subsequent president more aligned with their own audience? And let me hasten to add that I recognize that this same concern could extend to nonprofits, like the one I help run, who depend to an increasing extent on a large number of reader-donors.

A publication more closely aligned with its readers is mostly a good thing, of course, and reader revenue filling some of the advertising gap is one of the most glad tidings we’ve had in a journalism industry era in which very bad tidings are cresting. But new answers eventually pose their own new questions, and the emerging business model of quality news is no exception.

Richard J. Tofel is president of ProPublica.

Asking readers to pay has become the go-to answer in digital news. In 2020, I think we’ll start to discover one constraint of that model.

Those of us old enough to have been around at the outbreak of the digital revolution will recall how much resistance there was initially to requiring regular readers to pay for content online. When The Wall Street Journal, where I then worked, started asking digital readers to subscribe and pay shortly after it launched 23 years ago, we were widely derided, told we just “didn’t get it” and that “information wants to be free.” (Even though Stewart Brand had also wisely said it wanted to be expensive.) Even 11 years and hundreds of thousands of online subscribers after that, Rupert Murdoch — who wanted desperately to own the Journal, despite his dislike of the most distinctive things about it — made clear that he would drop the paywall once he got control. When he did, and got a look under the hood at the facts of the business, he promptly reversed himself.

Eventually, the Financial Times developed a better mousetrap with its metering of readers, and The New York Times adopted the FT approach, to its great good fortune (especially in the Age of Trump); The Washington Post eventually followed suit. But what then emerged is that even metered paywalls won’t work unless you have high quality content — high quantities of it. That’s why many metropolitan newspapers haven’t found salvation in paywalls: Their best content is still excellent, but most simply don’t have enough of it.

For those who do — the FT, the Times, the Journal, perhaps a few others — subscribers will save these enterprises from what would otherwise be likely failure as their advertising business continues to evaporate.

In many ways, that’s great news. The worst fears of people like former Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones in his Losing the News won’t be realized. And the resulting transformation of these publications’ business model will make them more responsive to their readers.

But in that very responsiveness, there’s a phenomenon I think we should also view with concern. Publications whose economic survival depends entirely on giving readers what they want may shy from giving them anything they might not want, or might not like.

The first implication of this could be less news of the “eat your broccoli” variety. That’s not good, especially in a society that tends to ignore subjects until they become full-blown crises. (Think climate change, or opioids until fairly recently.) But the next implication is even worse — the part in which you avoid telling your customers about things they might not like.

Consider, for instance, how this might apply to politics. The traditional press justly derogates the head-in-the-sand nature of much of Fox News’ coverage of President Trump’s lies and self-dealing. But when their own business model depends entirely on subscriber renewals, could they withstand the temptation to temper scrutiny of the misdeeds of some subsequent president more aligned with their own audience? And let me hasten to add that I recognize that this same concern could extend to nonprofits, like the one I help run, who depend to an increasing extent on a large number of reader-donors.

A publication more closely aligned with its readers is mostly a good thing, of course, and reader revenue filling some of the advertising gap is one of the most glad tidings we’ve had in a journalism industry era in which very bad tidings are cresting. But new answers eventually pose their own new questions, and the emerging business model of quality news is no exception.

Richard J. Tofel is president of ProPublica.

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