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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Capitalizing on context: What if the value of news isn’t what’s new?

February 18, 2021 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe – Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe

Subscription growth is expected to scale far more quickly than digital advertising. So, it is fair to say that many papers’ survival is predicated on perfecting a paywall strategy. To that end, subscriptions are becoming a primary consideration for publishers. According to PWC’s Media Trends 2020-2024 report, it is one of the few bright spots for newspapers, growing from $4.5bn in 2019 to $7bn by 2024.

As a result, few accusations raise hackles in digital news like the suggestion someone’s paywall strategy is wrong. We’ve seen that discussion play out many times between adherents of hard paywalls and the advocates for metered models. Now, though, there is growing sentiment that there may only be two or three big subscription players in any one niche. Consequently, rather than focusing on the terms of access, we are now talking about points of differentiation between what is included in each package.

Paywall packages

At some titles, non-news products round out the subscription bundle, making it more appealing overall. For example, The New York Times’ Crosswords and Cooking products have long driven subscriptions. And they actually appear to be growing in importance to the company’s subscription strategy. In its latest earnings call, CEO Meredith Kopit Levien also confirmed that the Times’ plans to build a subscription service around its review site Wirecutter.

Few outlets have the funds or the products to be able to bundle additional products into their news subscriptions, however. The points of differentiation for most have to come from their core content. For regional publishers making a play for subscription revenue, that uniqueness comes from the fact that they are the only provider of local news in the area.

However, national titles must differentiate in other ways. That might be a star columnist, or an edition-based publishing method as we’ve seen employed by The Times of London. Or it could even be putting the core product – the news – outside the paywall itself. And that’s where we get back to the accusation that people are doing paywalls wrong. Indeed, putting news outside a paywall is a grievous, unforgivable sin to some in the industry.

High value, no cost

We saw that with the reaction to news sites like The Financial Times and The Atlantic making their coronavirus coverage free-to-access. That was despite arguments from some of us that doing so would benefit their subscription businesses in the long-term. Even so, putting critical news outside the paywall is hardly unprecedented. But what if a national title were to put all of its rolling news outside the paywall, and instead rely on old content to convert people to subscribers?

That’s exactly what the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest national title, is planning to do. Per Nieman Lab’s write-up: “To read Nation articles more than seven days old … users will have to pay up.” Essentially, the value proposition shifts from free-to-access to paying for content that, in the world of digital news, is practically ancient. Subscriptions start at 50Ksh for one week, 150Ksh for one month, or 750Ksh for one year. (50Ksh is about 45 cents USD.)”

So, can an approach like this work? Can you effectively sell a “news” subscription where the content you’re charging for isn’t, well, new?

Deep dive archive

To answer that question, we need to look at other types of publications that have made access to archives the core tenet of a subscription.

National Geographic, for instance, recognizes that its back catalog is hugely appealing to potential subscribers. In fact, it made a separate landing page for those who are primarily interested in its archives as opposed to jumping in via a new issue. Esquire sells access to its back issues dating back to the early 1930s, as a standalone service, as does Motorsport with issues back to 1924.

The New Yorker includes transcribed versions of its old articles in its metered model. In addition to its own plans for a paid-for archive Playboy is launching a podcast series based on its historic interviews.

Exact Editions operates a business that runs specifically on offering access to back-catalogue bundles, and a few years ago its managing director Daryl Rayner said: “A large proportion of our partners’ magazines are earning more from institutional subscriptions than they are from app sales in iTunes. It is an important market, not to be neglected.” I can’t imagine the propensity to pay for archives has fallen even as more people become willing to pay for digital subscriptions.

If not strictly news, these are news-adjacent articles, hopelessly out of date and yet hugely valuable. They are snapshots of a given time in history; small wonder that people will pay for access.

Beyond the back issue

Beyond the appeal to the consumer of archived feature writing, however, there is undoubtedly still inherent value in news archives. If there weren’t, there would never have been a drive to collect microfiches of old editions in libraries.

While it has done so with no eye to charging for access, the Internet Archive has digitized “almost the entire back catalog” of the Editor and Publisher. As Joshua Benton writes: “Newspapers’ archives are an incredible storehouse of information about the history of our country. And too many of those archives are, as E&P’s were, left crumbling in some storage facility or hidden away on unindexed rolls of microfilm.”

It’s a social service to archive these old stories, and doubly so at a time when digital news is frequently ephemeral. The half-life of news is infinitesimal. This was a concern as far back as 2009. And it’s only become more important as audiences wise up to the nature of digital news publishing. They appreciate having resources like this to the point that they will pay for it, as the British Library found when it began selling access to its archive of newspapers.

Value proposition

So, why is there reluctance to make these archives the core tenet of a news subscription as the Daily Nation has done, rather than hitching our future to up-to-the-minute coverage? It’s partly due to a discrepancy between what journalists and editors value versus what audiences consider worth paying for. I recently spoke to Ramus Kleis Nielsen, the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, about that dissonance. He argues:

“When news organizations who are turning to reader revenues are trying to sell subscriptions, that light is very focused on us and not very focused on the public that we aim and claim to serve. They are the ones who have to convince. You don’t need to convince me or journalists that what we do is important, or that we want more people to engage with it and even pay for it. You need to convince the people who aren’t doing it.”

Because those of us who work in journalism focus on the now, on being first. And, therefore, we can lose sight of what audiences actually need: context. It’s natural that we should fear putting our most valuable content out there for free. This is why hackles raise whenever someone brings it up. But if what we value isn’t what audiences value? How can we know what they think is really worth paying for?

More crucially, those archives offer perhaps the most valuable point of differentiation from rivals. “Breaking” news is easily replicable online. And, while it’s important it isn’t necessarily uniquely valuable. What is valuable is the analysis – the context – built around that news. As with the viral “Who is the banana republic now?” column that the Daily Nation found drove subscriptions, that evergreen content – abundant in newspapers’ archives – is both differentiator and draw for audiences.

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