Subscriptions, not ads nor social-generated windfall miracles seem to be, after all, the most credible way for journalism to regain solid ground. Hear no mermaid singing of trendy tech cornucopias: Even if still away from sustainability – let alone the fat margins of pre-digital – the consistent deployment of readers paying for journalism is the conducting wire behind some shimmering hope in a scorched earth media environment.
Donations may sound enticing, as it lends some sort of lefty liberal communal air into marketing efforts, but they’re fishier than one might think. The idea that the relentless task of journalism may depend on the goodwill of the audience – or wealthy donors – is something to avoid. Journalism, like any other craft, is a profession and should provide means for living without good intentions in the middle. Good intentions can be heart-warming but on a long enough timeline, they can be poisonous when needed the most. Dependencies must be kept strictly restrained to those elements we can take for sure. Intentions are not. It’s no coincidence that the hell is bloated of them.
Platforms that allow users to pick and pay for the content they want from multiple sources are the destination. They haven’t happened yet for at least four reasons: first, news companies are still companies and need to work with the idea of “full” subscriptions. No business models contemplate the idea of reward journalists according to their reach or ability to knack audiences individually. Second, journalists themselves aren’t equipped to live without having an idea of how big their pay is. Third, the pricing systems available are created like small “content monopolies”, meaning that users are supposed to choose very few sources to pay for, once the budget of 99.99% of the audience is limited (to say the least). Last, but not least, tech platforms still charge very high prices once they have most of the market share (think of Uber or Paypal) and no payment system would be meaningful for journalism if it charges fat enough as near-decimal per cent rates.
Stressed industries like media today tend to find solutions at the cost of casualties. Corpses of the knocked-down competitors are usually the Petri dish from where the remaining players extract ideas to avoid perishing. In this sense, this is a very interesting time. The audience is still there (actually, the reachable audience is bigger than ever), there are no signs that it wants to consume less, and technology is bringing the producing costs down to the floor. However, concrete solutions are still scarce. Why?
Because the technology boosts are still restrained for a small clique of actors. Outside US and slices of Asia, the amount of players able to sit and plan with real money in hand is really small. None of the leaders of the news industry invested in innovation during the 90’s, when their pockets were still full (their main concern was hot to run papers with less people) nor at the beginning of the Internet tsunami. There are still big newspaper groups like Gannett or Reach, but they’re don’t stand a chance against the new owners of the ball. This is why the industry now needs salvation to come from elsewhere.
There are similarities between climate change and the devastation of the news industry. In both, we’re already in the extra time. but there are signs showing that there is a possible exit, but tech needs to help media and not eat its parts to gro bigger. Unfortunately, despite all the cool image and the aura of futuristic, community-building entities that the software and deriving services have, they still behave like traditional behemoths, caring little or none about how they impact society. It’s not their fault only, but without their initiative, the interesting times may become very dark ones.