Why people (even journalists) don’t pay for news – and what to do about it

A newsstand in London

A newsstand in London. Picture by Duncan Harris, Wikimedia Commons

It’s no secret that journalism is going through cataclysmic change.

It’s as if we are trying to sell horse-and-cart combos at the same time that Henry Ford is rolling the Model-T off the production line. As pointed out here by Eric Beecher, the “unconventional business model” which saw public interest, independent journalism being subsidised by the sale of cars, jobs and furniture (classifieds – remember them?) is deader than the dodo.

In the place of classifieds are a variety of “business models” where news organisations try to figure out how to make money when people won’t actually pay for the pure product (journalism) and have gone elsewhere for the cars, jobs and furniture.

I have sat around over many a glass of wine with journalist friends, bemoaning this state of affairs. But I don’t think any of us have ever spent much time on really thinking through WHY it is that people won’t pay for news (assuming they were ever willing to pay, of course – many saw the news as a wrapper to the real stuff: horse racing results, crosswords, horoscopes and classifieds). And here’s another question to ponder: Do journalists themselves pay for news? Do I pay for news?

I do have a paid subscription to a major South African newspaper, which comes bundled with a daily. These are delivered to the house and are consumed by my husband, who is not a journalist.

Why I (and other people) don’t read newspapers – or buy them

But I don’t read newspapers anymore. That might seem a shocking admission from someone who is a journalist but there it is: they just don’t work for me. The history of my relationship with newspapers might give some clues to what has happened to the industry, so here it is in brief:

When I was growing up, there was a daily newspaper in the house, and at least three weekend newspapers. I looked at them, paged through them, looked for the cartoons. When I was a student, they took a back seat – no money to buy them for myself. Then, for the 20 years or so that I was a print journalist I read newspapers avidly because I was involved in making them (to see my byline, to see a page which I had made) and because news was the currency of my life. I moved to online journalism in 1999 and gradually stopped looking at newspapers in so much detail – the intense way in which the online news cycle works meant that I had often had a surfeit of news and of reading by the time it came to a newspaper (not to mention that I already knew what had happened). Then I had a baby. Time for anything else went out the window. Now, 14 years later, I am simply out of the habit. And besides, I get my news elsewhere now.

I think these factors: lack of time and/or money (and the fact that news is free online), the fact that newspapers are often out of date and the fact of changing habits go some way to explain why many people simply don’t support journalism in the way that they used to.

How do I (and other people) get news then?

A humpback whale strains krill in Alaska.

A humpback whale strains krill in Alaska. Picture: Personnel of NOAA Ship RAINIER

Nowadays, like many of my colleagues (and I am sure, many of my non-journalist friends) I sift the news like whales strain krill: I jump from one news site to another, listen to talk radio shows and news broadcasts in my car, run TV news channels in the background, absorb newspaper posters on trees as I drive past, glance at front page headlines as I walk past newsstands in the shops, scan social media sites and feeds, picking and choosing where and when I want to dive deep to understand an issue more fully. When I am at work in a newsroom, I can use the multiplicity of online sources relevant to the job at hand. I simply don’t need printed bundles of news. As Eric Beecher says:

“The very idea of a large-scale digital newspaper that replicates the ethos and economics of its newsprint predecessors is nonsense. The internet is at heart a niche medium. Even large websites, including social media sites, are built around small communities of interest and individual preferences. This is the antithesis of the newspaper “bundle”, a brilliant concept when it was created 400 years ago after the invention of movable type and the printing press, and then refined over the past century into a grand money-making, power-generating machine. The bundle combined and curated content across a range of reader interests, from politics to sport and everything in between, at a time in history when the public had no way of doing that themselves.

I am devouring news and opinion in small chunks as I go about my life, and not paying for any of it, even though I know I should. None of the content I consume was produced for free, and none of it comes easily or cheaply. Journalism needs journalists and they need to be paid.

So why don’t I (and others) pay?

An article on Nieman Lab, with the somewhat obscure headline: Newsonomics: Our Peggy Lee moment: Is that all there is to reader revenue? is a good place to start looking for the answer. The article (subtitled “Will more than 2 percent of digital readers ever pay for news?”) by Ken Doctor is long and really good, and everyone who cares about journalism should read it. For me, this is the killer quote:

“…iTunes didn’t become known for selling the entire album, but rather for unbundling it and offering your favorite songs piece by piece. iTunes was the first truly user-centric model of the digital economy. By unbundling music, iTunes created a huge consumer appetite and created confidence in subscription models. Without unbundling, we wouldn’t have Spotify and Netflix today. ” Quoting LaterPay founder and CEO Cosmin Ene

There it is: It’s not just that newspapers don’t cut it. It’s not just that the Internet disruption brought a cultural mindset that information should be free. It’s that the web unbundled the news. We are all able to consume what we like, when we like, in small discrete entities.

Why paywalls and subscriptions don’t work

And that means I don’t pay for news because I just can’t pay all the full subscription fees for all the publications I consume regularly and care about. And besides I don’t want the whole publication: I just want the bits of it that interest me. The Guardian and the Washington Post and the Atlantic and the New York Times and Business Day do not come cheap when each is seen as a complete package (especially when you live with a soft currency like the rand). Of course, I could just pay for one, and use only that as a source of news but that wouldn’t work for me either professionally or personally – and it obviously doesn’t work for the many, many people who consume news in the unbundled manner. That horse left the stable a long time ago.

But if I could pay a very small sum for each article that I actually clicked on and spent some time looking at, wherever it was housed, and know that the money went back to the proper source, that would be something I could embrace.

What does this all mean for news organisations?

First, for news organisations, embracing the unbundled way of thinking would mean getting to grips with the understanding that they exist to serve users, and that they need to find users wherever they are. Users don’t want bundles, so why are we making them pay for them?

As Cosmin Ene says: “Walking the walk requires you to unbundle content and sell it in individual pieces, as well as in re-bundled form and in subscription form.” His model proposes that publishers decide how to price individual articles, allowing readers a cheap taste of content. The reader’s credit card is not charged until they’ve consumed 10 articles.

Secondly, news organisations would need to work together to achieve some sort of consensus about a platform or platforms that would make it easy for readers to consume in the unbundled manner.

Thirdly, they would also need to start working hard to make it clear to readers what it costs to produce news and what the consequences would be if independent journalism died altogether.

These things are hard to do. But watching independent, public interest journalism die is much harder.

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