Content

I’m going to start paying for newspapers online. Here’s why

How much are you spending on content subscriptions? Including news, music, software, TV and movies? I’m not to going to tell exactly you how much from my side, but it’s some way north of £50 ($60) a month.

I’m not sure exactly when I signed up for all of these, but I reckon it was somewhere between 2010 and 2015. Roughly the time when 4G took off for music and video streaming and when software as a service started targeting consumers – in my case Microsoft Office 365 and Adobe Lightroom.

My gut feeling is that most adults have subscriptions of between £50-£100 per month. And that in families it can work out to be twice as expensive, maybe more.

But for all the software, TV, movies and music, there’s one thing I’m not paying for and that’s journalism. Both mainstream media and new kids on the block, including Medium. Isn’t that a bit strange?

It’s not as if paying for journalism online is a recent fact. Some of the earliest content paywalls appeared courtesy of traditional newspapers the best part of a decade ago. Think of the London Times, one of the original paywall exponents back in 2010, which caught a lot of flak in the process.

So, what’s changed my mind, and why am I now ready to shell out maybe another £10 a month for a couple of newspaper-magazine subscriptions plus an all-you-can-read pass to Medium? Here are five reasons why I, and maybe others, are getting ready to spend after almost a decade into the online journalism subscription business.

1. A better experience

Take yourself back to 2010 when the earliest newspaper and magazine subscriptions coincided with the launch of the first iPad. All the talk then was of e-magazines and newspapers, most of which attempted to replicate the experience of holding a print-based product.

You downloaded the app, gave away your card details and hey presto, welcome to the future of e-journalism complete with e-cover, e-editorial, e-contents and e-features.  Just like the magazine that got shoved through your letterbox every month. Only different. Sort of.

Back then we thought that this was the future. Except it wasn’t. Bloated apps gave way to more efficient HTML 5 publications (hats off to the Financial Times who were pioneers with this approach). And tablets were banished to living rooms where they live on successfully as second screens. In their place, full-screen smartphones grabbed the centre ground which is still where most people consume content on the move (and back at home).

It also resulted in a more fragmented news experience. Instead of turning the e-pages of an electronic newspaper, consumers found themselves jumping from publication to publication, egged on by the unstoppable rise of social media and our never-ending compulsion to share content on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Instead of getting our news, fashion, sports from just one publication we could browse myriad channels from the Twitter post links cascading down our smartphone screens. It was great! Who cares where you get your news from…?

2. Spotify and Netflix: Normalising the subscription model

At pretty much the same time that the Times put up its online paywall, music and TV streaming pioneers were launching the earliest services. Spotify came to the music party in 2009, while Netflix launched its first streaming service in 2010.

I know there are questions about long-term business models, but Spotify, Netflix and Amazon have shown that at the right price point, around $10 per month, millions of people are prepared to pay for all they can consume on their headphones or flat screen TVs.

In short, these platforms have normalized the subscription model. When the London Times put up its paywall in 2010, it felt like a backward step at a time when ‘information wants to be free’ was still the hill on which many publishers where prepared to die. Now paying for stuff seems like a pretty smart idea. The golden age of ad-free television isn’t financed by goodwill, it requires subscriptions from millions of viewers. Although not everyone believes that the Netflix business model is sustainable.

3. Value for money

Subscriptions also force us to reevaluate the nature of media ownership and value for money. Compare the cost of music with 30 years ago. If you asked somebody back in 1990 how much music they could buy for $10 a month, they’d probably say one CD, if you were lucky. Today, of course, that monthly price point gives you access to pretty much any artist, any track you want.

It’s a similar playing field with Netflix and Amazon. For the price of a couple of 1990 cinema tickets per month you get pretty much all the TV and movies you can manage. Here, I think that the streaming giants have reshaped our relationship with content to the point where their models for music and TV are changing our minds about paying for journalism.

The introduction of soft paywalls also plays a role. A growing number of publications, the New York Times included, offer a limited number of free articles every month, using these pages to convert readers into paying subscribers.

A variety of subscription price points also helps (see value for money above). With the New York Times, the unlimited articles offer equates to $1 a week. In the UK, you can get The Telegraph for £2 a week while the Times feels extravagant at £6.00. But even here the value looks good if you go back to 2006 when taking the Times seven days a week would have set you back £6.55.

4. Protecting journalism against fake news

Earlier on I mentioned the social media age of innocence, somewhere between the launch of Instagram in 2010 and the Brexit referendum and US Presidential election in 2016. I think many of us, this writer included, were drunk on the idea of free content and free news.

Certainly, the idea that anyone could be a publisher, or a news curator felt like the right thing at the time. Brexit and Trump changed that of course and forced everyone, whatever their political persuasion, to reflect on their choice of news provider. As a result, I think people are now happier to pay for good journalism if it means preserving honest reporting against fake news.

Paying for articles also gets my vote now that an election is now highly likely in the UK and interest is gathering around the Democratic nomination for the 2020 US Presidential election. Investing in good journalism in the battle against fake news is an investment worth making.

5. I want the attention span of a human being, not a goldfish

Finally, I want to start focusing on reading long-form content again. Don’t get me wrong, I love Twitter and other social channels. They are marvelous places to consume breaking news, participate in live debates and chat with journalists. But they still pander to the clickbait addict in all of us.

I want to get back to in-depth feature articles. Publications that I can consume offline without any temptation to check up on notifications, emails, the latest response to a random Facebook post. I want to read thoughtfully, slowly. Not skim through an article, buzz reading the first sentence of every paragraph.

The only consolation is that I’m one of many. According to Nielson Norman Group, “On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.” And bear in mind that this research (2008) pre-dates the mass-adoption of smartphones. Today I’m guessing that attention span is much weaker.

What are you reading?

So, there you go. Five reasons why I will now start paying for journalism. They’re personal, political and financial. And yes, I know I’m fortunate being able to increase my monthly budget for the sake of entertainment and enlightenment. I hope, at the same time, I’ve given a sense of how the newspaper subscription model has evolved in the past 10 years, from pariah status, to perfectly acceptable.

Agree? How much do you spend on subscriptions every month, and how much of that goes on journalism?  

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