Paying for News: A New Path or a Cul-de-Sac for Journalism?

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2018 saw journalism continue to suffer from many of the threats which have plagued it in recent years: authoritarian measures against press freedom, a proliferation of misinformation in the wider media sphere and diminishing revenues. To a greater or lesser extent, all of these factors can be linked to the ever growing prominence of the internet as a space for political discourse and information exchange. Journalists are powerless to turn back the clock on these developments and must, instead, find new ways of surviving in an increasingly online culture.

When they initially moved online in the 1990s, many newspapers opted against charging internet users for content, hoping that increased advertising revenue would offset any decrease in sales. However, advertisers soon made use of cheaper online options  and news outlets found themselves with limited options for alternative revenue streams to sustain the costs of quality journalism (Fletcher and Kleis Nielsen 2017). Any attempts to charge users for access to news content seemed to run contrary to the internet’s ‘culture of free,’ but there are signs that this is becoming a viable option.

The Digital News Report reveals a 5 per cent increase in Irish people who pay for online news service over the last five years. While this increase comes from a low base, this is nonetheless encouraging given that the proportion of those whose news consumption is primarily or completely digital has remained relatively stable over the same period, which would point towards an increase in consciousness of the value of quality journalism. One of the most prominent international signs of the viability of relying on the public’s willingness to pay for news came with The Guardian’s announcement that the paper had recorded £800,000 operating profit for the 2018-19 financial year. Having lost £57 million just three years previously, Guardian News & Media ascribed the turnaround to their 655,000 monthly subscribers and one off contributions from more than 300,000 readers (Waterson 2019).

It would be easy to suppose that this would bode well for Irish news services given that the rate of Irish people who pay for online news content (12%) is greater than that of British people (9%), but the picture is more complicated. The Irish Times saw a 26 per cent rise in digital sales in 2018, but it was the only Irish newspaper to grow across both print and digital during this period (Slattery 2019). The Times Ireland has ceased publishing a print edition entirely (Crowley 2019). Irish media suffers from the difficulty of having to compete with major English language news outlets in the UK and US. The Irish Times’ relative success in carving out a significant online subscribership could point toward a public desire for quality Irish perspectives on world events. The recent purchase of Irish News & Media (the parent company of The Irish Independent among other Irish newspapers) by Belgian group Mediahuis will be an interesting indicator in this regard. INM had previously backed down from plans to introduce a paywall for their online content, but Mediahuis have pursued similar strategies with some success with their other European newspapers (Brophy 2019).

Measuring current figures against those of recent years draws attention to some curious trends. Older people are, as ever, more interested in the news, but the percentage of older people (45+) willing to pay for online news has scarcely risen over the last three years, while, conversely, the percentage of 25-34 year olds has risen by 7 per cent in the same period. It has been speculated that the growth in subscription services in other fields (such as music and televisual content) could contribute further towards young people’s willingness to pay for news: “the ‘culture of free’ may begin to erode, particularly in the minds of those who have only ever experienced an internet where paying for digital media is normal” (Fletcher and Kleis Nielsen 2017). This chimes somewhat with other figures from the report which indicate similar levels of interest in online subscriptions for news, sport and music content (though the popularity of video streaming services such as Netflix outstrip all of these considerably).

A development which seems to correlate with these figures is the establishment of Kinzen, a news app established by former RTE journalist and Storyful founder, Mark Little. For a €5 monthly subscription fee, users are promised a curated news community which will liberate them “from the shallow metrics of claps, clicks and likes” (Slattery 2018). Kinzen has raised over half a million euro in funding, which indicates a degree of industry confidence in the public appetite for paying for quality digital news. Following on in this vein, former Sunday Business Post editor and deputy editor Ian Kehoe and Tom Lyons have begun hiring staff for their new venture, The Currency, a subscription based online business and economics news service. Similarly, TheJournal.ie launched Noteworthy, a project which will attempt to pursue stories based on public recommendation and secure crowd-funding for the reporting of those stories (Bohan 2019).

Another curiosity emerging from the Digital News Report’s figures is that those earning under €30,000 per year represent the largest income category of those who pay for online news services. This is all the more interesting given that other results point toward wealthier people as being more likely to be ‘digital only’ in their news consumption. It is certainly encouraging that those earning less still count news among their priority purchases and, again, points towards a growing public consciousness of the need to actively navigate their way through an online culture characterised by misinformation. Access to quality journalism is seen by a growing number as a necessity (or perhaps an obligation) rather than a luxury.

While the Irish public are growing more receptive to paying for quality journalism, this remains a relatively slow process. Questions abound over the long term viability of online subscriptions offsetting losses in revenue caused by the decline in traditional forms of news consumption. Future generations may look back on our era as the death throes of journalism, or as a period of uneasy transition towards a functioning online media. To ensure the latter, news providers must continue to champion the idea that quality online news is a necessary expense for the discerning public. They must emphasise the qualities that elevate the veracity, relevance and thoughtfulness of their reporting over the misinformed and hastily compiled alternatives that can be accessed for free.

You can read the Digital News Report 2019 here .

References

Bohan, C. (2019) ‘TheJournal.ie launches Noteworthy, a new investigative journalism website,’ TheJournal.ie. 9 April 2019. Available from https://www.thejournal.ie/thejournal-ie-noteworthy-investigative-journalism-4581536-Apr2019/

Brophy, M. (2019) ‘Mediahuis must deal with INM’s love/hate relationship with digital,’ The Irish Times. 3 May 2019. Available from https://www.irishtimes.com/business/media-and-marketing/opinion-mediahuis-must-deal-with-inm-s-love-hate-relationship-with-digital-1.3879814

Crowley, S. (2019) ‘The Times Ireland to cease print edition,’ RTE.ie. 21 May 2019. Available from https://www.rte.ie/news/business/2019/0521/1050863-times-ireland/

Fletcher, R. & Kleis Nielsen, R. (2017) ‘Paying for Online News,’ Digital Journalism, 5:9. Available from https://www-tandfonline-com.dcu.idm.oclc.org/doi/pdf/10.1080/21670811.2016.1246373?needAccess=true

Slattery, L. (2018). ‘Mark Little’s Kinzen news app to launch in January,’ The Irish Times. 23 October 2018. Available from https://www.irishtimes.com/business/media-and-marketing/mark-little-s-kinzen-news-app-to-launch-in-january-1.3673180

Slattery, L. (2019). ‘‘The Irish Times’ grows daily circulation 2% to 79,406,’ The Irish Times. 21 February 2019. Available from https://www.irishtimes.com/business/media-and-marketing/the-irish-times-grows-daily-circulation-2-to-79-406-1.3801654

Waterson, J. (2019). ‘Guardian breaks even helped by success of supporter strategy,’ The Guardian. 1 May 2019. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/may/01/guardian-breaks-even-helped-by-success-of-supporter-strategy

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