Should we be paying for our news?

In an age where we subscribe to so many digital services, should we be paying for quality newsgathering as well? With many of us already paying a monthly fee to the likes of Netflix, Spotify, HelloFresh, ClassPass or Amazon, it has become normal for people to subscribe to services that meet their daily needs and entertainment requirements. As long as the ease and benefit outweigh the costs, many of us are willing to pay. We pay for these services because they offer us access to products that otherwise would cost far more if we were to pay for them individually, on separate platforms, or in store. We reap the benefits of these services that make our lives easier and far more entertaining, whether it’s options on what documentary to watch in the evening, a new album to listen to on the way to work, or access to your local spinning class. So why are so few of us paying for journalism? A numbers game Digital transformation has been an essential and necessary change for news companies to stay competitive. With the rapid decline of print advertising revenues from the 80s to the present day, most physical papers are on an irreversible decline. Because of this, getting your digital offering right is of paramount importance. Newspapers are moving their content away from the physical broadsheet and onto the web to align with how the public now consume daily news. The explosion of technology has enabled us to access the internet in the remotest of places, and on the smallest of devices, with various news outlets providing us with comprehensive online platforms to read from. And while people bemoan the fact they must pay a license fee, perhaps its time to accept that this is the new normal and paid-for media is something many already do (Netflix), and it’s an adjustment that’s online with our news intake. Yet subscriptions to news sites are dwarfed in comparison to their digital entertainment cousins. There are 217 million Spotify subscribers (2019) and 167 million Netflix subscribers (2019), yet only 4.9 million NYT subscribers- digital and print (2019), and just 655,000 Guardian subscribers- digital and print (2019). If you pay peanuts… The idea of paying for news might seem alien in the age of the internet’s plethora of choice and instantaneous coverage of world events. Also, in the UK at least, state broadcasters like the BBC are reliable and accurate sources of information that on the surface don’t cost us anything (although your TV licence fee funds online services like the BBC news website). This can skew our view of paying for journalism. Physical newspapers and their online equivalents need to be worth the investment. But when you start paying for your news content you come to appreciate the value you get from these premium subscriptions. It is fair to say you get what you pay for if you get your news for free. And in an age where fake news is so prevalent and proliferates so quickly via social media, purchasing a subscription just on the basis of making sure what you are reading is accurate, makes this more justifiable. While headline news is unlikely to differ drastically across platforms, be they paid or free, what does differ is the quality of journalism you get with a publication that enforces subscription, in terms of breadth and detail. Paid news coverage takes an in-depth look at how some of the biggest stories permeate deeper into communities and therefore become more relevant, offering clarity and perspective on world issues. I wonder how this would change if this journalism was not supported by subscribers. If the public insists on accessing free news content, then newspapers and magazines will be forced to make choices that affect objectivity and quality, to stay financially viable. We may see a decline in stories written by people, when tech could auto-write blogs and press releases at a fraction of the cost, and a rise in paid-for content posing as editorial. All of this begs the question: how can news providers encourage more people to spend their money on news subscriptions? Sell, don’t beg There are lots of ways newspapers can make their online content appealing enough to warrant payment. One obvious way is providing quality journalism that tells the stories that aren’t being told, in ways that explore communities and people in different styles. But other premium content is used to entice the customer, along with exclusive interviews (for example, The Times published an interview with the exiled fly-half Finn Russell back in February, readable only to subscribers), Take the New York Times for example. It is a company that prides itself on reporting stories that no one else is telling. It has one of the widest offerings of news content in the world, with subscribers in over 200 countries across the globe, and paying a subscription allows them the resources to provide quality investigative journalism. Subscribers allowed the likes of the #MeToo movement to spread virally, after the NYT broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal in 2017, which then encouraged over 80 women to share their story of abuse. The paper is unapologetic about the cost of its subscription. They need the support and investment but are confident of their offering. It is this attitude that many British publications could do with taking note of. Papers need to be bold with their offering and positioning, make their apps easy to use and navigate, and stay competitive. Well worth it For those of us who are serious about our news intake, a subscription to our preferred news vendor is justified and well worth it. No different to other media subscriptions, and you are quite likely to use it more than these anyway. For example, with more than three million Londoners using public transport every day with an average commute well over 40 minutes, your time to sit back and read is plentiful. And newspapers have spent a lot of time creating apps that are easy to use and easy to navigate for this purpose. Granted on the surface news subscriptions can seem rather expensive (when compared to the likes of Netflix and Spotify) but if you break it down you are looking at paying just over £1 a day for your news.
The choice is up to you. Many will pay upwards of £40 for their mobile phone contracts, but the idea of paying for a news subscription seems excessive. We pay for accounts like Netflix because the price of cinema tickets has become too expensive. Yet we ignore news subscriptions when purchases of physical newspapers have declined, and today, we ignore news at our peril.