There's A Bright Future Ahead For The News Business -- Here's Why

In capitalism, value is determined by what people will pay. For about two decades, this idea has been challenged by an insistence that news and information must, on principle, be available to all for free.

The reality we face every day, however, is that quality comes at a cost, and the truth definitely isn’t free.

In an age when social media algorithms drive engagement and help determine what people know (and what biases they acquire), what happens to our democracy when our best journalism lives behind a paywall inaccessible to large swaths of the population, especially lower-income communities?

Precisely at this moment, when we need more and better information and analysis, there’s less of it. About 1,800 U.S. newspapers closed in under two decades (per UNC’s School of Media and Journalism), leaving many places with little or no local new. According to Pew Research Center, most Americans now say they get information from social media, which tend to reinforce consumers’ inherent biases versus presenting them with journalist-vetted facts.



The downside to paywalls: they’re walls.

Paywalls are a double-edged sword. They create haves and have-nots: the informed and the uniformed.  Some paywalled publications are thriving -- like The New York Times, which just reached 9.1 million digital subscribers amid strong revenue growth. But the Times is an outlier in a sea of drowning local news operations.

Big and small city newspapers are struggling to build paying subscriber bases, while readers with multiple media subscriptions encounter what I call a user-experience tax: that is, password management.

Yet it’s the wallet tax that’s proved to be the most daunting of all for news consumers. Subscribing to TheNew York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, The Economist and a local paper would cost more than $1,500 a year -- luxuries many are doing without during these inflationary times.

There are brighter lights on the horizon for publishers wishing to profitably produce quality journalism while enabling wider access to cash-strapped consumers. Here are five trends to consider:

  • Lowering the cost of paywalled content is an achievable goal. We’re beginning to see philanthropic efforts that allow bulk media subscriptions. Some cover access for an entire school through nonprofits like the News Literacy Project, while some companies offer news site access to employees instead of snacks as an HR benefit. Additionally, packaging news with one’s mobile or TV streaming service can work. Disney+ created such packages to get 70 million-plus subscribers in less than a year.
  • Legislative support for the news industry. President Biden just gave a tacit endorsement of Web3 and crypto. We need something similar for news -- for example, tax write-offs for subscription donations and for businesses paying for news.
  • Lower the barrier to product innovation. Open up content and authentication application programming interfaces to make it easier for tech startups to build tools that can expose younger audiences to a wider range of news content.  
  • Joint ventures. Media companies should consider joint venture investments in local content creators, with 90% of the funding coming from local investors, and the remaining 10% as in-kind branding and training.
  • Bundling. Bundles get a bad rap -- people think aggregation, or tech monopolies that restrict access between publishers and consumers. We strongly believe that bundling will save the media, and today’s technology makes it possible to provide full access to the news content, respect the brands of top-tier publications, enable sharing of articles, and break down the costs for individual users.

Harried media industry executives are by nature risk-averse, which discourages innovation. The thinking goes: I know we’re not profitable -- but if we lose any more money, I’ll lose my job.  When the risk equation is so tainted by concerns for personal livelihoods, change cannot happen. Waiting for an intervention like public-sector bailouts risks the very independence that makes quality news publishing necessary.

I’m convinced we can do better. Through collaboration with outside innovators prepared to take risks, with the help of stakeholders across society, and with everyone understanding the urgency of the task, the news industry can thrive and grow. Content will not only be king, but the king will once again don fine clothes.

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