Making money from online news: Dream or possibility?

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In the Business Models in Journalism courses I have given in different projects and programmes, the most common complaint of journalists who have been looking at me with desperate eyes for many years is that the online news economy is not sustainable for them. Although journalists or newspaper managers are often reluctant to experiment with methods to generate income, I think it is important to emphasise that things are not that simple.

I think it would be useful to look at the results of a recently published study, both for information and to better understand the universal situation.

The Reuters Institute published a study titled “Paying for News: Price-Conscious Consumers Seek Value in the Midst of the Cost of Living Crisis”, the study analysed people’s tendency to pay for news based on surveys conducted in 20 countries where online news payments are common.

Political ties can both attract and repel the reader

The report by Nic Newman and Craig Robertson emphasises the importance of reader-oriented business models with high political commitment. Of course, it is also noted that tensions arising from different views can lead to subscription cancellations. For example, the report notes that the New York Times published a controversial opinion piece, which led to subscription cancellations.

The report also draws attention to the impact of price-conscious consumers on the news industry. According to the report, many potential subscribers are not willing to pay for multiple news subscriptions, creating difficulties for news organisations in attracting and retaining subscriptions. To solve this problem, the report authors suggested the implementation of all-access packages that combine multiple titles, podcasts and other benefits. According to the report, the New York Times successfully adopted this strategy and achieved a significant reduction in subscription cancellation rates.

Focused on the pricing issue

The report also recognises pricing challenges. While consumers are willing to pay a slightly higher price for quality news, they may not be willing to pay as much as publishers would like, according to the report. This, combined with declining referrals from social media platforms and uncertainty over search traffic dominated by artificial intelligence (AI)-powered chatbots, creates a dilemma for news organisations to make online news financially sustainable, according to the report.

There are also some findings in the report on the flexible and tiered pricing of news products, which we often talk about in my classes. The report also examines alternative strategies, such as differential pricing based on age or prior usage, noting that these tactics can raise fairness and equity concerns among subscribers.

Subscription feels either limited or calm

According to the report, some news subscribers said they felt “limited” by their subscription. These subscribers expressed a desire to explore news from a variety of sources to get different perspectives. On the other hand, some subscribers feel that their subscription provides a curated experience that cuts through the noise of multiple sources.

In other words, with a subscription, we are left with readers who either escape from the noise, who think that they receive content with a certain language and standard, or who ask the question “Well, I buy this newspaper, but what if the good news is on the other side”. It must be said that this is not an easy audience. It is imperative to analyse our target audience well based on many different variables ranging from workloads to daily routines and to position persuasion and campaign processes accordingly.

Emphasis on the positive

The report highlights that, despite all the negatives, news organisations still have many opportunities to attract new subscribers. According to the researchers, organisations can still have a bright future by offering the right price and clearly demonstrating the value of their content.

The report concludes by highlighting the need for organisations to overcome obstacles and seize opportunities to ensure the sustainability of journalism in the digital age. By understanding the preferences and needs of price-conscious consumers, news organisations can navigate the changing media landscape and continue to deliver valuable news content to their audiences.

As a result, there is a widespread sense of despair that the online news economy is not sustainable for journalists. However, research from the Reuters Institute shows that with the right pricing and clear demonstration of value, journalism can still have a bright future.

Through different news products, different pricing strategies and efforts to deliver more value, the journalism industry can make online news financially sustainable. It is also important to recognise that subscribers are looking for different perspectives and that news subscriptions can feel limiting, and subscription models should be shaped accordingly. We certainly have a long way to go in terms of sustainable economic models, but in this environment, it is getting harder and harder to find “high excitement” journalists.

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