A “winner takes all” mentality means that online media is failing to tackle the problem of getting people to pay for news.

This is according Meera Selva, Director of the Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), who delivered the keynote speech at the CIPR AGM last week.

She was there to share the findings from RISJ’s latest Digital News Report, and outlined five key trends:

  • More are paying for online news, but only in a few countries, for a few big brands
  • More people are relying more on ‘reputable’ news brands than this time last year
  • Trust in the news continues to fall, with complaints about overload and negativity
  • Voice and podcasts are growing (more later)
  • People are spending less time on Facebook and more on Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp (see chart below)
The graph shows the decline or rise in time spent on key social networks – with Facebook and Snapchat in decline

User experience causes problems

Back to the “winner takes all” comment, and Meera explained that the industry is struggling to find the best way to get people to pay for news. Publishers are operating in silos, looking at how they can monetise their own product, without necessarily considering the wider implications.

There are three main models for paying for news:

  • Supporter: users pay a one-off or recurring fee. No logins required, and news is free to all at point of service (including those that don’t pay). An example is the Guardian, with Meera explaining that those making the donations also feel that they are being altruistic
  • Subscription: users pay a recurring fee for access to the site. A paywall protects content, blocking non-subscribers
  • Advertising: no payment or login required from users. However, since GDPR, users should be asked to review privacy settings. This can be quite complicated in some cases, and this too is another barrier to content. For heavy advertising-led sites, expect a poor on page experience

The recurring login problem is one that causes users frustration and is leading audiences away from traditional news providers. Those that pay have to input information every time they visit the site (or remain logged in which has privacy risks). Those that don’t pay will just avoid the site.

The risk of ignoring those that don’t pay

It was noted that news websites are increasingly being accessed via what Meera referred to as the ‘side door’ – social media feeds, news aggregators and email links, rather than direct search.

If non-subscribers use these methods, they are likely to follow links to stories they can’t read. This means that they will only have the headline or a brief snippet to make their judgements on (assuming they choose not to try and find the news elsewhere).

Meera highlighted that this risks democracy as groups are denied access to news and analysis. In addition, these elements can be easy to edit, leading to a risk of misinformation being spread.

Trust is falling

It fits one of the overarching themes of the research; that trust in media is in decline. Meera added that one of the problems with this is that it leads to a further lack of trust in government and institutions.

The suggested answer was a Spotify equivalent for news – one login, one payment. It makes it much easier for users and should lead to people accessing more than one source of news. However, Meera noted that fragmentation and vested interests in the media make this highly unlikely anytime soon.

Voice is being neglected

Meera described the approach to smart speakers and voice by news organisations as “clunky”, with many not engaging with the opportunities it offers. She added that podcasts are growing in popularity because audiences find them more authentic and distinctive. Creators are considered to be more passionate and offer more diversity than mainstream media, leading to trust and greater affection for both the content and presenters (more on smart speakers and podcasts here).

News is too broad and needs more depth

In the Q&A following the presentation there was some conversation around other issues in news, including:

  • Political news is suffering as analysis is too personality featured, rather than going into the detail behind policy or decisions
  • Publishers generally focus too much on attracting the broadest audience possible, leaving a gap for niche organisations to fill the gap and target under-represented audiences
  • Information is global, making consistent and appropriate media laws difficult
  • International working means that resources can be shared for big news items (e.g. Panama Papers), but it is hard to monetise
  • Algorithms are as likely as editors to determine what news people see and read

The purpose of news media was also raised. Should it be for breaking the news or for detailed analysis – and what is most appropriate for the modern era? It’s a topic I plan to revisit in a future blog and I’d welcome your thoughts below.


Photo by Matthew Guay on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.