As 2017 dawns, the future of news remains more uncertain than ever. Clickable headlines have fomented a fake news furore, advertising revenue is falling, and subscribing is a foreign concept to a new generation of users. Never has serious news been in more desperate need of a solid revenue stream and a proper subscriber base.

What if you could use your Netflix account to access subscriber-only print journalism? It would mean fewer separate subscriptions decisions for the consumer and might just help the journalism industry make the money it desperately needs.

The world of online print journalism faces a simple and nearly intractable problem. The cost of collecting just one more reader is very close to zero. This might not look like a problem. It looks like an opportunity: every outlet can reach everybody connected to the internet!

But the problem becomes apparent after every outlet realises the competitive landscape it faces. If it can get an extra reader costlessly, the natural place to set the price for at least some of its content is zero. (This is all to do with downward sloping marginal cost curves and is one prediction of economic theory that is actually borne out in practice.)

We see many online print outlets offer porous paywalls and generous deals. They want to have subscription revenue to some extent, but attracting just one more reader to the site is always going to be a proposition they just can’t pass up. Just one more. Just one more. Etc, etc. Until the paywalls fall. It’s easy to trundle round the web reading a little here, a little there, and never paying.

This is not a problem faced in more traditional publishing; the cost of newsprint meant a newspaper always cost something. Online print journalism faces a market similar to that of television stations. Once the broadcast is established and the radio waves are making their way through the atmosphere, the cost of getting people to tune in is zero. For broadcast TV it makes sense to set price at zero and aim to collect the largest audience possible.

TV provides an excellent lesson for the future of print. Cable TV instituted a model of charging for big packages of content. At the moment, online print mastheads are like individual TV channels trying to charge for access. History suggest that will not work.

The cable TV system makes sense. Not because the mastheads will like it, but because it is likely to be very popular with consumers: one subscription to rule them all! Get your Crikey, your New York Times, your Fairfax and News Corp, Women’s Weekly, Time Magazine, Frankie and Vogue, all in one hit.

Bundled up 

There are plenty of tentative signs a system of bundled subscription is tempting for publishers. For a while in 2014-15 you could bundle a New York Times subscription and a Fairfax subscription, for example.

Some start-ups have already experimented with the idea. Ongo died quickly. Blendle is still running — it is a Dutch start-up, offering access to a range of top mastheads. It is not a bad service, but it makes you pay per click, with prices ranging from $0.15 to $0.49. All very fair, in theory, but people hate being “nickel and dimed”. I suspect the future is an all-you-can-eat situation, rather like how Netflix or Spotify charge.

Blendle is tiny. The way for bundling to succeed is for a really big player to commit. That will make it tempting for many news organisations to tighten their paywalls at once.

That big player is most likely already on the scene. Perhaps Netflix will decide it can get more customer loyalty by extending subscriptions to cover news. Whenever you landed on a paywall news site, you’d be logged in via your Netflix credentials.

Alternatively, I can imagine a Twitter pass, where you give Twitter $100 a year and it guarantees every click you make via its service takes you past the paywall at the relevant site. It then distributes money on a pay-per-click basis.

An even more likely winner than either of those companies is Amazon. In the US, millions subscribe to its Amazon Prime service, which already includes everything from grocery delivery to TV streaming. Its chances of becoming a news bundler are even higher since its founder and owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post (which has a metred paywall and charges $99 a year for full digital access) and makes that available free for six months to Amazon subscribers.

The downside

The risks of such a system are many. The obvious fear is a nefarious and politically minded Murdoch type operating as middleman and controlling content. But the example of subscription TV suggests that risk is not too likely; keeping diverse content under one banner is a more successful mass-market ploy.

The greater risk is that a subscription-bundling system is like Spotify, and despite looking the goods, never really delivers enough revenue to make it profitable for the people who make the content. (Artists get as little as a few hundred bucks for a million plays of their song on Spotify. They submit to releasing music via Spotify to raise buzz and then make money via touring. Until print journalists can go on tour, such an option won’t work for journalism.)

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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