Politico

Opinion | More Money and Fewer Readers: The Paradox of Subscriber Journalism


Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand’s unforgettable dictum from 1984, “Information wants to be free,” turned out to be correct. For more than two decades, newspapers, magazines and Web startups gave their goods away in hopes of attracting huge numbers of readers whose eyeballs could be sold to online advertisers. Give the stuff away, publishers decreed, and make money off of online advertising.

Brand made a second point in the same breath, though. It never carried as far or as wide, but it has proven remarkably prescient: “Information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.” Audiences still crave free content, of course, flocking to Yahoo News, the BBC, HuffPost, CNN.com and other such sites. But advertising-supported news could never monetize all those clicks as well as could Google, Facebook and Amazon, which ultimately cornered the online ad market. That triopoly now collects about 90 percent of all online ads in the U.S. and half of all U.S. ad spending.

Searching elsewhere for revenue, publications are increasingly turning to readers’ wallets to earn their keep and an information-wants-to-be-expensive juggernaut has left tread marks all over the mediascape. The New York Times, which began to demonstrate a decade ago that readers aplenty could be persuaded to pay directly for online content, has become the modern Godzilla of news subscriptions. It now counts 7.1 million paid subscribers to its digital products. Last week, the paper extended its bet on the paid model by adding seven additional newsletters to its 11 existing subscriber-only newsletter offerings. There’s Substack, the newsletter platform that has grown from nothing in 2018 to a colossus of almost one million paid subscribers today and is expanding abroad. Sports site The Athletic, which had 100,000 subscribers in 2018, now is said to have about 1.2 million. Closer to home, POLITICO tells me it draws half of its revenue from its paid newsletters to businesses and professionals. Late last year, ESPN+ moved all of its sports analysts behind its paywall. Puck, a news site that covers Hollywood, Silicon Valley, New York City and politics, will launch soon as subscriber-supported. Even the Reuters wire service has cobbled together a subscriber paywall.

This is not to say that online journalism has turned en masse from clickbait to subscriberbait. Clickbait will be with us always. But consumers have validated the notion that they value exceptional, quality news and are willing to pay for it the same way they pay for gas, clothing, and food. The rise of Substack and other subscriber platforms—Twitter’s Revue, Facebook’s Bulletin, Ghost, Mailchimp, and others—has turned blogs into healthy businesses, allowing writers to make proper livings by attracting a couple of thousand paid subscribers. The subscriber rush has become so intense that some outlets, such as Insider, evaluate writers in part based on how many readers their stories convert into subscribers, Digiday reported in April.

But subscriber-based media isn’t a journalistic panacea. The New Yorker frets that Substack’s successes might injure the already bruised and bleeding newspaper and magazine industries by bleeding off talent and revenues. Other critics worry that the subscription movement will slow the tap of free news that has gushed for two decades, giving anyone with an Internet account gratis access to high-quality content and democratizing the news. For all their faults, daily newspapers have always tried to remain affordable to both upmarket and down-market readers. As access to free, quality news declines, some worry that a digital news divide will emerge as the best news sites shape their work to satisfy the “haves” who pay and neglect the “have-nots” who don’t or can’t.

And little evidence has arrived to show that the paid bandwagon will roll as successfully in local and regional markets, where newspapers are still trying to be everything to everybody. These publications were already in decline, and it’s doubtful that many of them will attract enough paying customers from the next generation of news consumers to thrive.

For the web’s first two decades, online publishers did what their print and broadcast colleagues had always done: maximized audience size and sold them to advertisers. The logic of the moment led publishers to make their copy free, and the pursuit of traffic drove the normalization of clickbait. Some publishers were so wild about traffic that they paid writers by the click, and some were still thinking in that direction as recently as 2020. But monetizing gigantic spurts of traffic from viral stories was difficult. Only Google and Facebook excelled at it, and the smart online ad money increasingly went to them.

Having lost the battle for your eyeballs, news publishers have switched to lusting for your bankroll. What delights publishers about subscriptions is what everybody from Amazon to Spotify to the Dollar Shave Club to Netflix love—the annuity-like reliability of steady revenue. Advertisers are a flighty lot who must be encouraged to sign up again and again. Subscribers are relatively loyal, and they develop an affinity for their subscriptions, which makes them feel like they belong to something special. (Of course, some subscription operations made it fiendishly difficult to cancel, which has been noted.) Recent subscribers to Esquire online may have been surprised to receive chatty and gushy email welcomes from the publications, flattering them for their good taste. “Welcome to Esquire Select! I’m thrilled you decided to join us,” effuses Esquire. Likewise, sites like Slate and Puck encourage subscribers to think of their subscriptions as acts of “membership” that put them inside the velvet rope.

And for those who don’t succumb to the lures of exclusivity, there are ubiquitous paywalls to corral readers like cattle into the subscriber pen. You can’t do much web grazing of quality content these days without a paywall clanging shut on you. Lots of sites, such as Vanity Fair, Slate, New York, Wired, Fortune, the New Yorker, the Wrap, Forbes, Time and most major and minor newspapers still allow a few free pages before cutting you off and throwing up a subscription-solicitation interstitial. The message is still “Welcome all,” but the true meaning is “Welcome to all who pay.”

The rise of the subscriber has diminished the power of advertisers to dictate or subtly influence news coverage, a headache that has plagued every advertiser-supported publication since the beginning of time. Yesterday’s publisher had to worry about advertiser boycotts or offending the powers that be. While that’s a thing of the past for subscriber-based publications, they’re still not in the clear. They have to worry about boycotts by readers whose sensibilities and politics they’ve offended. Social media makes it easy for readers to build and prosecute a case against a publication. Last year, New York Times staffers engaged the social media millions to protest the publication of Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed about sending federal troops to quell riots. The newspaper backed down, apologized for publishing the piece from the Arkansas Republican, and the editor of the opinion pages resigned. One lesson learned here was that a club should think twice before it publishes something that might insult and anger its members.

While the subscriber model works extremely well for big magazines and nationally branded newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, which can attract subscribers in California and Texas as well as New York, Florida and Pennsylvania, it’s not a universal godsend. As Wired noted last December, local and regional papers draw on smaller population bases than the nationally and internationally fixated Times and Post. Nobody in Maine is much interested in the Dallas Morning News (unless they’re a Cowboys fanatic) and Minnesotans aren’t likely to subscribe to the San Francisco Chronicle unless they’re Bay Area worshippers. In the parlance of Silicon Valley, the Times and the Post can “scale” because they appeal to educated and wealthy audiences across the country and around the world. The Morning News and Chronicle, on the other hand, do not scale at all. Their pages are a tough sell to anybody but locals.

The rise of subscriber media isn’t the cause of newspaper decline—newspapers were in decline as a mass medium for decades. Rather, the subscriber boom is a result of newspaper decline as publishers have scrambled to find new revenue sources. Before the web, newspaper production was heavily subsidized by advertising, contributing up to 80 percent of total newspaper revenues. These lucrative sources allowed newspapers to support bureaus in state capitals and Washington, and deploy city and suburb coverage. But as web advertising pushed newspaper advertising toward the vanishing point, publishers felt they had no resort but to cut their pages and news coverage to a size commensurate with the trickling revenue and to bill readers directly to cover their nut.

In her fine new book, News for the Rich, White, and Blue, media scholar Nikki Usher warns of the downside of journalism designed primarily for those who pay full ticket. High subscription prices have made today’s newspaper, whether in print or online, something of a luxury good. In 2019, Nieman Labs’ Joshua Benton reported that the cost of the average print newspaper subscription had doubled in just a decade. Readers now provide more revenue to newspapers than do advertisers, according to a recent Pew report. That fact is a little illusionary. The new ration is not so much a matter of reader revenue increasing, but of advertising revenue vanishing.

The looming danger, Usher writes, is a future in which newspapers shape their coverage to appeal to the group that has demonstrated the greatest willingness to pay for quality news: the rich, white and liberal elites. If lower-income readers get priced out of quality news, they risk going uninformed or, worse still, being taken in by misinformation by free fake news operations, ideological outlets posing as straight news, or viral bursts on social media.

It should go without saying that there’s plenty of good to find in the subscriber bonanza. It produces quality copy. It employs journalists, which is a good thing, right? It provides an alternative to mass media. Only a sourpuss would deny that it has caused hundreds of journalistic flowers to bloom. Paid sites have made it easier and cheaper than ever before for media outsiders to charge for their podcasts or to challenge the news incumbents, thanks to outfits like Substack that run the back-office operations of credit card billing, web hosting and email distribution. And we don’t seem to have come close to saturating the market for subscriber-based media. In 2018, a Nieman Lab piece prophesied a subscription-pocalypse as readers and listeners topped off their media tanks and started canceling. That has yet to happen, of course, and the market looks to be anything but saturated. Scratch a journalist these days and she’ll tell you about her idea for a paid site that would cater directly to her beat. Suddenly, everybody with a keyboard is a potential media entrepreneur.

The best example of subscriber-based dynamism can be found in the saga of the employee-owned sports and culture site Defector. Defector was started by Deadspin’s editorial staffers, who walked off the job in 2019 following a dispute with management, to essentially produce the same product. Defector, which has attracted tens of thousands of subscribers, is every bit as good as the free Deadspin. Some would say better. The downside of subscriptions is a much smaller Defector audience than Deadspin had, reducing its cultural impact. It’s an unavoidable trade-off for such niche or special interest media.

Muckraker George Seldes, one of America’s most accomplished independent journalists, built his paper-and-postage newsletter, In fact, into a 176,000-circulation phenomenon in the late 1940s, outpacing the circulation of both the New Republic and the Nation. Every bit as edgy in his journalistic approach as such Substack all-stars as Glenn Greenwald, Matt Yglesias or Matt Taibbi, Seldes should have gloried in his triumph. Instead, he was depressed by his lack of mass reach. No matter how hard he tried, he lamented in his final issue that he couldn’t connect very far beyond the “$5 liberals” who subscribed to In fact. He wanted a mass audience that would allow him to keep pace with the big newspapers that reached a million subscribers. He wanted his words to land as hard as theirs. Instead, the elite audience he’d cultivated became too much of an echo chamber.

As the philosophy of clickbait has given way to a business model based on subscriberbait, paywalls have nursed the New York Times back to health, given marginal voices a bully pulpit, reinvigorated journalistic entrepreneurship, blunted the ad man’s power and provided a regular stream of revenue that allows editors to plan long-term coverage. But the cost, one that we’ve not yet been billed for or contemplated, appears to be the erosion of a common frame of reference that old media provided and the arrival of what media scholar Stephen Bates calls gated communities of information that produce “income rather than geographic news deserts.” Every boon, it seems, must bring a bane.

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Stephen Bates’ book An Aristocracy of Critics addresses the question of who and what commercial journalism should serve. Recommended! Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that recruiting readers to pay directly for content was Michael Kinsley’s idea when he started Slate in 1996. Alas, he was a man before his time. You can subscribe to my feed for free via my email alerts or my RSS feed. For sass, see my Twitter feed. To sass back, send email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com.

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