News Subscriptions – and the Lack of Alternatives

News Subscriptions – and the Lack of Alternatives

I’m a bit of a news junkie. I always have been. I read a newspaper each day – and spend a lot of time online reading lots and lots of stories from lots and lots of sites. I might regularly have 60+ Chrome tabs open on my browser full of long reads that I’m planning on getting around to.

But I’m finding ever more frequently that I’m running into paywalls when links are shared on social media or newsletters, and that’s a problem, because I’m pretty much maxed out in terms of news subscriptions.

I currently subscribe to the following news products:

  • The Guardian, print and digital
  • The New York Times, digital
  • The Economist, digital
  • The Washington Post, digital
  • The New Yorker, digital

I’m certain that I’m far above average in the number of subscriptions I have. The recent Reuters Digital News report captured precisely this information – only 7% of UK residents paid for any online news in the last year. I’m very comfortably in that 7%.

In the US, the number is 20%, which is up 4% year on year. So it’s no wonder that so many news outlets, and US news outlets in particular, are chasing those subscriber dollars. They’re so much more reliable than advertiser revenues.

But the problem is that despite my five different news subscriptions, I still run into paywalls at everything from The Atlantic to Wired; The Daily Beast to Bloomberg; The FT to The Wall St Journal.

But I’m at saturation point here – and I know I don’t read everything that I’m already paying for. So however much I want to read that one article that’s being shared on social media, I’m not even going to take out a £1 three month trial (that you’re banking on me forgetting about before the price reverts to a regular price). Unfortunately, unless you offer me a non-subscription alternative, I’m just not going to read your product.

In the old print days, I could go out and buy that copy of the magazine or newspaper. My commitment was no more than handing a sum of money over in a newsagent. But today, my local newsagent only carries about half a dozen titles, and magazines like other “legacy” media are suffering.

But to be clear: I am very happy to pay money to read your journalism.

I just can’t subscribe to everything I want to read!

Sure, there are soft paywalls where you get a finite number of articles a month, and judicious use of incognito browsing or using Google News can sometimes give you access, but they add layers of frustration into the mix.

Then there’s Apple News Plus, the £10 a month subscription service that has access to some (but by no means all) of the publications I read. It’s also not available on my phone because I don’t use an iPhone. So that doesn’t help. And of course, like other Apple services, Apple keeps a big chunk of that £10 a month I’m theoretically paying to support journalism. The jury is definitely out on that one.

Somehow, in the UK and the US, the micropayment solution has never really seemed to get up and running; the idea that I might pay 10p or 50p or 99p to read a piece, all handled in the background by something like PayPal. That’s one area where somewhere like China is way ahead of us. They use micropayments from everything from tipping to paying for podcasts. I honestly don’t know why any news outlets haven’t at least trialled this (NB. I believe The Independent once did many years ago), or why a payments company hasn’t made it as simple to buy things this way as it is for me to tap my contactless card in any shop I walk into.

We need a payments infrastructure that doesn’t penalise really low valued transactions – the reason why your local shop isn’t happy to sell you a £1 can of drink on your contactless card, because they’ll lose money on the deal.

Sidenote: We have to be careful about pricing these things – don’t compare everything to a cup of coffee. I don’t drink coffee, but I do drink black tea, and I’m well aware that when I spend £2+ on a cup of tea in Starbucks, I’m not really paying for a 5p teabag plus a mug of hot water, I’m paying for the ability to have a space for somewhere to sit for a period of time and chat, read or work. And even the most dedicated caffeine addict only drinks so much coffee a week, so don’t compare everything coffee prices.

When we’re moving into a world, where even your car manufacturer wants to sell you products as a service on an ongoing basis, you have to be concerned about where these things will top out. Pretty much all the software I use is either free (i.e. ad-supported in Chrome), or on a subscription basis. Nearly all of my TV has some kind of regular payments attached to them. And it seems these days, if you launch a product, the money people are keen on asking you about the ongoing revenue model attached to that product – can we charge consumers for some kind of cloud access model?

But I’m at saturation point with news, and I’m pretty much there with TV.

There need to be other models available too. One-time payments would seem to be it, but somehow we’ve not evolved enough to manage that, and the solution on just about every news site is subscription or nothing.

I fear that that simply won’t work. Let’s have a frictionless micropayment solution that lets me pay for news – and all manner of other things – in a completely seamless manner.

Update: I explore micropayments a bit more in a follow-up article.






2 responses to “News Subscriptions – and the Lack of Alternatives”

  1. Fred avatar

    Interesting article! Having worked in different media outlet, I know it is hard to drive innovation and change. Some may say about micro payment that it might hurt the brand since the price is so low… it may be perceived as junk and not quality journalism. Others simply don’t understand why they should think differently. There are solutions out there that offer differents types of paywalls and business models, check it out!

  2. adambowie avatar

    Hi Fred,

    Thanks for the link to Centify. I’ve also been made aware of Axate.

    I think everyone jumps on the subscription bandwagon because it you get those people, they’re incredibly valuable, so they’re the highest priority readers. But as I say, at some point that gets too much. And in an old-world analogy, I could still buy the odd edition of the New Yorker or The Economist without subscribing to them. It’s not as cheap, but I don’t think either devalues the brand.

    I do think as much as anything it’s been down to the lack of tools to let you frictionlessly charge consumers relatively low amounts without incurring high transaction fees in the process.