20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
D   I   C
3
2050
T   I   O   N
4
2040
S   F   O   R   J
5
2030
O  U  R  N  A  L
6
2020
I  S  M  2  0  2  0
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.

Barbara Gray   Join local libraries on the frontlines of civic engagement

Hossein Derakhshan   AI can’t conjure up an Errol Morris

Marie Gilot   This is fine

Rachel Schallom   The value of push alerts goes beyond open rates

Bill Adair   A Nobel Prize, a Brad Pitt film, and a Taylor Swift song

Jasmine McNealy   A call for context

Rachel Davis Mersey   The business of local TV news will enter its downward slide

Steve Henn   The dawning audio web

Lauren Duca   The rise of the journalistic influencer

Anthony Nadler   Clash of Clans: Election Edition

Emily Withrow   The year we kill the news article

Michael W. Wagner   Increasingly fractured, but little bit deliberative

Monica Drake   A renewed focus on misinformation

Fiona Spruill   The climate crisis gets the coverage it deserves

Nicholas Jackson   What’s left of local gets comfortable with reader support

Joe Amditis   Collaborative journalism takes its rightful place at the table

james Wahutu   Western journalists, learn from your African peers

A.J. Bauer   A fork in the road for conservative media

Richard J. Tofel   A constraint of the reader-revenue model emerges

Kourtney Bitterly   Transparency isn’t just a desire, it’s an expectation

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The business we want, not the business we had

Tom Glaisyer   Journalism can emerge newly vibrant and powerful

Josh Schwartz   Publishers move beyond the metered paywall

Nathalie Malinarich   Betting on loyalty

Candis Callison   Taking a cue from Indigenous journalists on climate change

Sarah Schmalbach   Journalist, quantify thyself

S. Mitra Kalita   The race to 2021

Monique Judge   The year to organize, unionize, and fight

Tanya Cordrey   Saying no to more good ideas

Tamar Charney   From broadcast to bespoke

Greg Emerson   News apps fall further behind

Laura E. Davis   Know the context your journalism is operating within

Matthew Pressman   News consumers divide into haves and have-nots

Geneva Overholser   Death to bothsidesism

Zizi Papacharissi   A president leads, the press follows, reality fades

Mariana Moura Santos   The future of journalism is collaborative

Nikki Usher   All systems down

Ståle Grut   OSINT journalism goes mainstream

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   A changing industry amps up podcasters’ ambitions

Nico Gendron   Make better products if you want to reach Gen Z

Imaeyen Ibanga   Let’s take it slow

Kathleen Searles   Pay more attention to attention

Jakob Moll   A slow-moving tech backlash among young people

Sarah Marshall   The year to learn about news moments

Kevin D. Grant   The free press stands against authoritarians’ attacks on truth

Sue Robinson   Campaign coverage as test bed for engagement experiments

Heather Bryant   Some kinds of journalism aren’t worth saving

Tonya Mosley   The neutrality vs. objectivity game ends

Catalina Albeanu   Rebuilding journalism, together

Jim Brady   We’ll complain about other people living in bubbles while ignoring our own

John Garrett   It’s the best time in a century to start a local news organization

Bill Grueskin   Our ethics codes get an overhaul

Stefanie Murray   Charitable giving goes collaborative

Heidi Tworek   The year of positive pushback

Knight Foundation   Five generations of journalists, learning from each other

Rick Berke   Incoming fire from both left and right

Dan Shanoff   Sports media enters the Bronny era

Doris Truong   The year of radical salary transparency

Cristina Kim   Public media stops trying to serve “everybody”

Errin Haines   Race and gender aren’t a 2020 story — they’re the story

Carrie Brown-Smith   Engaged journalism: It’s finally happening

Annie Rudd   The expanded ambiguity of the news photograph

Masuma Ahuja   Slower, quieter, more measured and thoughtful

Nushin Rashidian   Are platforms a bridge or a lifeline?

Meg Marco   Everything happens somewhere

Brian Moritz   The end of “stick to sports”

Jonas Kaiser   Russian bots are just today’s slacktivists

Cory Haik   We’re already consuming the future of news — now we have to produce it

Linda Solomon Wood   Everyone in your organization, moving toward a common goal

Peter Bale   Lies get further normalized

Seth C. Lewis   20 questions for 2020

Logan Jaffe   You don’t need fancy tools to listen

Rachel Glickhouse   Journalists get left behind in the industry’s decline

Joni Deutsch   Podcasting unsilences the silent

Jeremy Olshan   All journalism should be service journalism

Brenda P. Salinas   Treating MP3 files like text

Alana Levinson   Brand-backed media gets another look

Logan Molyneux and Shannon McGregor   Think twice before turning to Twitter

Helen Havlak   Platforms shine a light on original reporting

Millie Tran   Wicked

Colleen Shalby   Journalists become media literacy teachers

Matt DeRienzo   Local broadcasters begin to fill the gaps left by newspapers

Felix Salmon   Spotify launches a news channel

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting finally creates another mega-hit show

Irving Washington   Leadership isn’t something you learn on the job

Sarah Stonbely   More people start caring about news inequality

Jennifer Brandel   A love letter from the year 2073

Craig Newmark   Formalizing newsrooms’ battle against disinformation

Meredith Artley   Stronger solidarity among news organizations

Lucas Graves   A smarter conversation about how (and why) fact-checking matters

L. Gordon Crovitz   Fighting misinformation requires journalism, not secret algorithms

Kristen Muller   The year we operationalize community engagement

John Keefe   Journalism gets hacked

Ben Werdmuller   Use the tools of journalism to save it

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, collaboration in a time of state attacks

Kerri Hoffman   Opening closed systems

Elizabeth Dunbar   Frank talk, and then action

Margarita Noriega   The platforms try to figure out what to do with single-subject newsrooms

Victor Pickard   We reclaim a public good

Alexandra Borchardt   Get out of the office and talk to people

Mira Lowe   The year of student-powered journalism

Sonali Prasad   Climate change storytelling gets multidimensional

Alfred Hermida and Mary Lynn Young   The promise of nonprofit journalism

Raney Aronson-Rath   News deserts will proliferate — but so will new solutions

Pablo Boczkowski   The day after November 4

Mario García   Think small (screen)

Jeff Kofman   Speed through technology

Jake Shapiro   Podcasting gets listener relationship management

Joanne McNeil   A return to blogs (finally? sort of?)

Beena Raghavendran   The year of the local engagement reporter

Sarah Alvarez   I’m ready for post-news

Jeremy Gilbert and Jarrod Dicker   A call for collaboration between storytelling and tech

Carl Bialik   Journalists will try running the whole shop

Mary Walter-Brown and Tristan Loper   Power to the people (on your audience team)

Talia Stroud   The work of reconnecting starts November 4

Cindy Royal   Prepare media students for skills, not job titles

Whitney Phillips   A time to question core beliefs

Ernie Smith   The death of the industry fad

Elizabeth Hansen and Jesse Holcomb   Local news initiatives run into a capital shortage

Madelyn Sanfilippo and Yafit Lev-Aretz   News coverage gets geo-fragmented

An Xiao Mina   The Forum we wanted, the forum we got

Francesco Zaffarano   TikTok without generational prejudice

Christa Scharfenberg   It’s time to make journalism a field that supports and respects women

Don Day   Respect the non-paying audience

Simon Galperin   Journalism becomes more democratic

Adam Thomas   The silver bullet

Sara K. Baranowski   A big year for little newspapers

M. Scott Havens   First-party data becomes media’s most important currency

Alice Antheaume   Trade “politics” for “power”

Mike Caulfield   Native verification tools for the blue checkmark crowd

Julia B. Chan   We 👏 take 👏 breaks 👏

Joshua Darr   All that campaign cash will make the media’s problems worse

Dannagal G. Young   Let’s disrupt the logic that’s driving Americans apart