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Imagination, innovation and investment: top ingredients for digital news success

No one in news publishing can have failed to clock the gloomy picture facing the traditional media.  

Shrinking newsrooms. The fall in the number of independent outlets. The near annihilation of local news. 

With far too many people now getting their information from social media and a variety of digital platforms, the way we get news today is as fragmented as the current political climate.

There is a way forward but it requires investment and political will, as well as journalistic creativity, technological innovation and an audience-first approach.

In this article, we’re looking at news subscriptions and paywalls and the role they could play in helping news publishers generate income and master the reinvention that journalism needs in order to rebuild public trust. 

Subscriptions: the surprise success story of digital news

The UK’s Guardian Newspaper and the New York Times are great examples of print publications that have succeeded in transforming themselves into popular subscription news platforms providing high quality journalism in a number of formats.

Mark Thompson, the man widely credited with the latter’s success, stepped down as CEO in 2020 after a eight-year tenure that saw the paper go from 500,000 subscribers in 2012 to 5.33 million.

When he took over the paper, it was a print publication with a small digital offering. The prevailing view in the media at that time was that if it’s online it should be free. But Thompson had a strong faith that people would pay for content if of a high enough quality.

‘If you want great news, information and to understand the world it doesn’t matter what the means of conveyance is. You want it. You need it. It’s part of your life. That can be in the context of the BBC licence fee or, in the case of digital, digital subscriptions,’ he told the BBC’s Media Show.

Audience-first content that readers rate 

Thompson believes the problem with the advertising business model for news is that the customer becomes the advertiser, not the public. The public become units – eyeballs – who are sold to the advertiser. The pressure builds to produce the type of content that gets the clicks, views and shares, which leads to lowest common denominator stories. When the customer is the paying subscriber however, the content matches what they want to read. 

‘It’s very hard to keep cultural standards high when you base the economics on advertising,’ he says.

When the revenue comes from subscriptions, it goes straight to the bottom line because the creative machine that produces the stories is already in place. The New York Times invested heavily in turning its paper into a first-class digital experience hiring new journalists and data scientists to ensure its content would meet readers’ needs in better, more effective ways.

One of its weekly columns Modern Love was turned into a successful Amazon drama and a written news feature and podcast called The Jungle Prince of Delhi, about a long-lost prince in India, was turned into a limited TV series

The Times’s latest venture is to place a third of its 50 free newsletters behind paywalls. Despite being a relatively primitive method of digital distribution, email has proved to be especially effective at attracting and retaining its paying customers. The free newsletters reach 15 million readers each week and the paper is hoping that putting a selection behind paywalls will lead to more subscribers to the main paper. Readers who open newsletters are ‘far more likely to pay and stay,’ Alex Hardiman, the paper’s chief product officer, said in an interview with Axios.

Shining a light on local news: small steps of big importance

While news subscriptions and paywalls have worked for big media publishers like the New York Times, the question is whether that success can be translated at a local level. How can smaller outlets without finances replicate that kind of digital transformation? Local news has been all but wiped out by the migration of its readers and advertisers to social media, as we wrote about here in our blog on misinformation. Often there’s not enough money to even exist, let alone invest. 

But in an environment where personalised content is King, it’s not unreasonable to think this aspect may help salvage community news. People like the familiar and what’s more familiar than the area in which they live? 

The answer probably lies in whatever channel of communication is used to reach those people, as well as a funding stream that may previously not have been thought plausible. 

New York Times’ opinion writer Erin Aubry Kaplan believes the distorted distribution of wealth has caused many of the media’s problems. She’s not convinced by the argument that there’s not enough public money to fund local news.

In 2021, the state of New Jersey pledged $500,000 in public funds to local news, representing a first-of-its-kind state-funding model aimed at supporting quality local journalism. It followed a six-year project by a group of journalists, community representatives and other parties into how journalism could serve the local area in better and more responsive ways.

These are important topics for all governments to consider when looking at the 21st century information crisis that’s left so many communities in the dark. 

Creativity in news content and production

Community news can be more than sustainable if the journalism is creative enough and reinvents itself to meet the needs of local people. 

So says León Krauze, anchor for KMEX, a Spanish speaking TV station in Los Angeles. During Covid, they listened hard to their audience and responded with content that directly related to what they were saying. 

‘People were desperate to find ways to avoid being evicted and they didn’t know where to find help,’ he told the #FutureOfLocalNews webinar. ‘We gathered our resources and offered people a blueprint to navigate those challenges. We became problem solvers first and newscasters second.’

Journalists must, Krauze argues, be masters of reinvention. No matter how esteemed or highly-regarded they are, they must have the humility to push themselves further, ‘which is in the very definition of the craft’. Direct communication and connection with the audience works. It reinforces the familiar, creates value and restores trust. 

In a multi-cultural, global world, the future of all news – international, national and local – must involve a collection of organisations and individuals who recognise and can amplify the voices from and across all communities to reach the broader public. 

Regaining people’s confidence is a massive undertaking for the media who are competing with multiple information sources and digital platforms that no one knows whether to believe. But in time, the move towards good journalistic practice could gain enough traction to persuade a sceptical public that the media isn’t working against them and can be trusted after all. 

In the interests of transparency and openness and so you know what our motive is, Powered by Coffee develops WordPress tools, software and other digital solutions for media publishers. We also happen to care deeply about the issues facing journalism in the 21st century and want to help ensure a stronger, brighter future for the media through the design of better tech.

Coral Wood

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