The value of news to its primary audience is highest, but the ability to generate revenue to news publishers is at its lowest. How can we fix this?
In times of crisis, people need reliable, informed and accurate journalism. That journalism needs to be accessible to the widest possible audience, both on a national and local level, and particularly accessible to those most vulnerable.
Many publishers have partially dropped their paywalls in response to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, allowing their readers access to urgent information in the interests of public safety. The rate of digital news being consumed – both in page views and time spent per article – has been steadily rising since the start of the crisis, and has jumped up by over 50% in the last few days for some US publishers. It’s a time when readers need journalism the most.
But reliable, high-quality journalism costs money to produce. And when the situation is developing as quickly as it is, and with restrictions on newsrooms preventing usual ways of working, the cost of keeping readers updated is high. Typically, publishers supplement free-to-read content with advertising revenue; but advertisers have blacklisted terms relating to the pandemic to avoid any potential negative brand association, leading to a massive collapse in advertising revenue.
It’s not realistic for news to be free, but it’s also not realistic to expect every reader to subscribe to every site they want to see: now, more than ever, readers want and need a plurality of sources and opinions. In particular, readers need access to local news sites as well as national titles, so that they can monitor developments in their community and the changes that will affect them the most directly.
Advertising-dependent publishers, responding the best they can to this crisis, have been left in some cases with little to no revenue. With paywalls down for the news most in demand, and advertising revenue crashing, the industry has found itself in an unprecedented, rather unique situation: when the value of news to its primary audience is highest, the ability to generate revenue to news publishers is at its lowest. With this crisis set to last months, this new status quo isn’t sustainable for long.
This current emergency has highlighted the absolute necessity of news to society on a local, national, and international level. It has also highlighted the unsustainability of the industry’s current business model, and the necessity of changing the model to one that stands up in times of crisis and can protect journalism when we need it most.
The overall unsustainability of the status quo is the reason we created Axate. Casual, uncommitted, frictionless payments for media open up more products to more users and vice-versa. A straightforward relationship between publisher and consumer, independent of advertising and with few if any barriers to entry, is simply a more sensible way – not just now, but even after the crisis has passed. And, in response to the unique situation this crisis has brought about, we’ve added the new functionality: the option to ‘pay if you can’, letting readers support publishers but without locking them out of urgent information.
In the last week, we’ve seen the existing orthodoxies around internet business models for news be completely reset. But this doesn’t have to signal a crisis in journalism: we can take this opportunity to adapt to this new situation, just as fast as it has changed. We just need to think a little bigger.
Sameer Padania, an expert in journalism and innovation, recently tweeted: ‘When things settle down after the worst of the pandemic, I think many societies will look at their journalists and other critical parts of their information infrastructure with new eyes and respect – and perhaps more support and investment.’
Let’s hope he’s right. The opportunity to emerge from this with better, stronger journalism and even a better internet is possible.
Dominic Young, Founder & CEO, Axate
About: Axate is a centralized digital wallet system that lets readers pay on an article-by-article basis. Users upload money to their Axate wallet and can spend it across Axate-enabled sites. Based in London, Axate was founded in 2017 by Dominic Young who previously held senior positions at News UK and News Corp.