Publishers should be more open with audiences about the financial crisis in journalism

Can media companies offset low pay with "emotional salaries"?

The Reuters Institute's latest Digital News Report found that across 20 countries subscription growth has been stalled for the last three years at 17%, and they also found that 57% of people would never consider paying anything for news. Worse yet, in the UK, where I’m sitting right now, 69% would not pay anything for news, which is why the UK (8%) is dead last in terms out of the 20 countries when it comes to people who have paid for news in the past year. Ouch.

It reminded me of the research that I highlighted a few weeks ago research covering Chicago area news audiences from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. In line with the Digital News Report, the Northwestern University study found that 19% of those surveyed had paid for or donated to a local news outlet and 16% paid money to a national outlet. And 51% of those surveyed said that no one should have to pay for news with another 29% saying that only those who could afford it should pay.

But it’s not all bad news. The Reuters Institute found that 36% of people would consider paying something for news if the price is right, and as INMA’s Greg Piechota pointed out, that creates the possibility to grow the paying audience across these 20 countries by 3.5x.

However, I want to make another point. For those who work or did work in journalism, this might seem impossible, but most people are not aware that journalism is in crisis financially. The Northwestern University research found that 71% of those surveyed “don’t know that the news business is in crisis”. More than half, 54% thought the local news businesses were doing somewhat well and 17% thought they were doing very well.

Maybe it is time to level with audiences about the financial pressures that our businesses are in before it’s too late. Poynter recently highlighted the case of LA Taco, a “food, culture and community” news outlet in Los Angeles that punched above its weight, enough to win a prestigious James Beard award, which honours chefs and food writing in the US. In April, they announced that they would have to furlough all of their staff because the bottom had dropped out of their business. LA Taco said that they had been doing OK with 2000 members but suddenly that number started dropping until they only had half that number. And then they lost their main advertiser.

But they had never done a membership drive, because as its editor-in-chief Javier Cabral told Poynter, they aren’t NPR. Some folks in the US refer to NPR pledge drives pejoratively as “beg-a-thons” so I took away from his comment that they felt uncomfortable asking. And they didn’t want to be a non-profit.

The crisis pushed the editors and staff to do an “emergency drive”, and they explained the situation to their community via social media. Within 24 hours, they had got enough support to hire back the furloughed workers, and now a couple of months later, they have 3000 members. It isn’t the 5000 members they think they need to be completely independent, but it’s a start.

My takeaway: Publishers and journalists need to get over their reluctance to talk about the dire straits journalism is in. When I was a local newspaper editor, I was honest and open in saying that to provide the kind of coverage our communities deserved I needed their help. I needed them to buy subscriptions, and I needed to work with them in partnership to fill in gaps in our staffing. That was a decade ago now, and the situation now is much, much more dire. It’s not easy. It does feel a bit like begging, but it is obvious that the public isn’t connecting the loss of coverage to the decline of journalism as a business.

Research backs this up, even in the UK where audiences are least likely to pay or even support paying. Last year, the Press Gazette highlighted City University research that compared four different types of paywall messaging with 815 people in the UK.

  1. ‘Normative messaging’ that emphasises their subscription would support “independent, inclusive and watchdog journalism”.

  2. A ‘price transparency’ message that spoke about the financial crisis in the industry.

  3. A ‘digital-specific’ message that focused on the value of the subscription such as exclusive content.

  4. A ‘social message’ about how the subscription would allow access for events and would make the subscriber a part of a community.

No single message worked, but a combination of the first two that focused on supporting independent journalism and a message about the dire financial situation of journalism performed the best. I know that this might prick at our pride, but research shows two things. People are not aware of how bad the crisis is, and they will respond to it in subscription or membership calls to action.

And now the links for this week.

GQ found that feeding the algorithm was not building a loyal audience, only people who came from social media, got that quick hit story and then promptly went back to whatever network they came from. They now look at where they can add to the conversation, add value. Their audience numbers are down but the total minutes spent with their content has rebounded in the past year.

Less is more. It really is, and data bears this out. This is yet another data point that reinforces that the FT’s strategy to reduce the content that they produce by 15% each year has something to it. It is more important that we deeply understand what audiences want and need rather than simply feeding the algorithms, chasing the same audience with the same commodity content.

A great article on how to engage with comments on TikTok. Honestly, this feels very much like what I used to do in the Naughties, when I read blogs and listened to podcasts to find sources. (I still remember when I tracked down a podcaster who had recorded their escape from a Hurricane Katrina-flooded New Orleans when I worked for the BBC.) People are talking about the issues that you cover on social media platforms. The value isn’t in simply clipping up their videos or embedding their comments. The value is in following up with them with an interview.

This week in AI content abuse

The next two items are about AI companies being accused by publishers of stealing their content. (Heck even Amazon is accusing Perplexity of scraping its content without permission.)

A couple of stories about the ongoing crisis in news - local and digital. Paramount shuttered MTV News in May 2023, and now they have taken down the website, pulling years of content from the web. I think back fondly to the excellent coverage that MTV News did of elections with their Rock the Vote campaigns. Sigh.

In its World Press Trends report 2022-23, WAN-IFRA highlighted how funding from settlements with platforms was going to be a growth area for news organisations in some countries. That’s coming to an end in Australia, and that could mean the closure of 50 regional newspapers.

But the Associated Press wants to support local news and not just with wire copy. The cooperative has set up a fund to help green news deserts. US funders have really got the bit between their teeth and putting serious cash behind efforts to address the crisis.

A new book looks at how “fewer people are seeing a life in news as a worthwhile career. This reflects a broader problem — namely, the ways that relentless economic pressures are pushing people away from socially important careers.”

A call for media companies to invest in culture to make up for the lack of competitive pay. “By prioritising culture, career development, work-life balance, and meaningful recognition, media companies can build and retain effective teams that are happier in the workplace.”