We’ve established that the market economics in publishing can’t support a lot of the stories that deserve to be told. When everything’s crammed into an ad-supported model, plenty of amazing articles, commentary and reporting get left behind. We firmly believe any solution to this problem rests on three core things: reader, writer, story. Let’s tease out what that looks like.
We’ve ignored the value exchange between reader and writer for a long time.
The current online publishing model is convoluted, and pays scant attention to the relationship between reader and writer. Readers are reduced to an “audience” and the success of any given piece is measured in audience growth, not in the value that any one individual derives from an article.
Advertisers are happy when the audience grows. But this cynical approach doesn’t really care if readers derive an incredibly low amount of value from stories. The only input needed from them is to merely visit a page (like this link-bait tactic). Practically any other feedback from readers isn’t core to the business model.
But for argument’s sake, let’s say that readers should derive value from the stories they read. How much value are we talking about? And what does that look like? How do we measure it?
The easiest way to find out is to start charging for it. There’s no truer feedback than dollars and cents.
Is charging for content our generation’s white whale? Trust in Betteridge.
Charging for content is still largely publishing’s great unknown in part because of how timid and prosaic the attempted solutions have been. We’re seeing signs that major publications are willing to play with paywalls, but will bolting wings onto their wagons really make them fly? Does an old facsimile from the print world create enough value? Some argue that if charging for content worked, these big publishers would already have figured it out. We would argue that the blind leading the blind gets us nowhere.
The reality is that from top to bottom, not a single person has any idea how to define the value of content for the reader today. And if we keep looking backwards to the last three decades of failure, we will continue to come up with bad solutions.
Content is worth paying for. Great. So how much and what does it look like?
The first step to understanding value is to empathize with readers as customers.
Is the digital subscription to the New York Times too expensive? In 2006, a monthly subscription to the print would cost you over$40 per month. For their complete digital package, including all apps, archive access, and up-to-the-minute news it costs $34.95 a month. Seems like a deal when you look at it like that.
But to get an idea of how most people think of subscriptions, let’s jump outside the publishing fishbowl and look at other media services being offered today:
- Unlimited access to millions of songs: $10 per month (Spotify)
- Unlimited access to thousands of movies: $8 per month (Netflix)
- Access to the NYT news organization: $34.95 per month
Let’s assume a reader wanted unlimited access to even three publications (Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times): $77 per month.
It’s expensive to run a publication. But from a customer’s perspective, we’re trying to sell a great horse when other media are selling inexpensive, efficient cars.
And these other industries are exploring the incredible potential of the relationship between customer and media on their platforms. Rdio and Spotify let people create playlists that help other people find new music. Hulu practically saved the Criterion Collection. Soundcloud launched thousands of DJ careers. In each case, content is the foundation of the experience and the framework to create more value for the customer.
Lastly, the old world of publishing is tied to a model that cannot scale value for the customer. Unlike Spotify et al which add more while maintaining the same price, a publication like the New York Times cannot keep adding more journalists… in fact, they keep cutting them.
So who are the readers? And why do we treat them as one mass audience, when they so clearly aren’t?
It may seem trite, but it’s important to remember that readers are people. They’re individuals looking to learn more about their world, and what’s happening. The web has forever changed the levels of access and the speed of information, but fundamentally the relationship between reader and writer remains the same. Journalists have stories to tell, readers are listening.
In the past five years, tools like Twitter and blogging have helped journalists to find their readership and stay engaged with them. For many readers, the atomic unit of journalism is no longer the publication or the article, but the journalist.
One of the most incredible things we see today are the macro narratives that play out between journalist and readership. Journalists are able to quickly share links, commentary, and thoughts with their readership as events take shape. Invested readers incorporate these engaged moments into their daily routines. We strongly believe that these relationships where reader and writer are closely engaged is where great value can be created.
Best of all we don’t need to wait until all journalists have millions of avid readers. We can start right now and explore that relationship, even if it’s only 100 readers to start.
What would your most devoted readers pay for and why? How can you create that value for them? Chances are, if you’re a journalist, you probably already know these answers, even if you’re not thinking about it like this.