Media business: why subscription mutates into membership

Increasingly, the product of journalism will be paid for not by those who consume it but by those who want it to be delivered to others.

In the media markets of the developed countries, a peculiar phenomenon has emerged, whereby paying for journalism is becoming more desirable than buying its product. The social demand for the news media to continue existing is stronger than the economic demand. “Respondents are more likely to donate $10 to a free news site than pay a fee of $10 to access news,” says one study.[1]

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An individual can’t help but be bombarded by the news. To receive news only internet access is required, not access to the news media, as was the case just 20 years ago.

While people do not need the media to get the news, they still need the media to make sure the news resonates with others, with the group. People want to make sure the news they encounter in their newsfeed is officially accepted by society as valid.

This is what journalism is for now. The media are news notaries; they supply not the news but the service of news validation.

With such a mode of news ‘consumption’, the media can hardly offer the news as a transactional commodity. What many subscribers pay is becoming, in fact, a validation fee, not a subscription payment. For example, for the New York Times, the very idea of reading the ‘newspaper of record’ is, essentially, the idea of news validation. This peculiar ‘validation demand’ gives the New York Times a significant advantage over its competitors. As the significance of the news is validated by the scale of its dissemination, a paper with a larger circulation and broader coverage is the better – the most authoritative – news validator.

The news-validation service is an important step of the media towards the membership model, as it makes people regard the media as a source of evaluation, not news.

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The membership model married individual subscription to philanthropy foundation funding, eliminating the intermediaries (foundations). The media themselves accept the role of fundraiser for the cause of pressing social issues.

Within this model, incentives for news selection remain within the newsroom, but they are not market driven. They are driven by the editorial search for the most resonating pressing social issues that could justify fundraising and stimulate readers to donate. This change has led to transformations in the mechanisms of agenda-setting.

In collecting the practices and know-how of membership from around the world, the Membership Puzzle Project emphasizes that listening to ‘people formerly known as the audience’ is one of the keys to success. This is not just listening. Basically, newsrooms must let the readers in, in any form that may please them. Not complying with the wishes of donors can put the continuation of funding at risk.

“Participation takes many forms in the more muscular models for membership,” – reported Jay Rosen and Gonzalo del Peon. – “In the UK, The Bristol Cable’s members have a say in everything from editorial to strategic and business decisions according to co-founder Adam Cantwell-Corn. The organization has monthly meetings at which members and staff vote on the topics they want to see covered that month.”

When people from outside of the newsroom vote on the topic to be covered, this is not even allocative control; this is operational control.

Newsroom autonomy has been saved from advertisers (they are just not interested anymore). It is more or less protected from the rare species of billionaires concerned with the media’s survival. But, under crowdsourcing, newsroom autonomy is readily given away to the crowd. The crowd decides if all the news “fit the print”.

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Explaining the difference between subscription and membership, Jay Rosen emphasized the role of a cause for fundraising:

Subscription is when you pay your money and receive a product, like The New Yorker magazine via snail mail or access to the Times of London website. It is fundamentally a transactional relationship.
Membership is when you join a cause because you believe in the importance of the work being done.[2]

Not only does the membership model subsidize content to be delivered for free to those who do not want to buy it, it also preselects this content in order to fit the idea of a cause chosen by the payers. It makes content ideologically charged and meant to be spread for free. These are, essentially, the technical characteristics of propaganda. The membership model incentivizes journalism to mutate into propaganda.

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Membership is a sort of crowdsourced philanthropy propaganda and also a sort of slactivism, as members outsource their activism (support to a cause) through small donations.

Economically, membership is a hybrid model that combines the elements of payment from above and from below.

In terms of expected effect, which is paid for, membership resembles paying from above for agenda-spreading, in the same way as advertisers or political sponsors would do in order to spread a message.

In terms of a financial mechanism, membership resembles paying from below, as payers are ‘people formerly known as the audience’. They used to buy news but now are solicited to pay for an agenda to be spread to others. Under the membership model, a part of the audience has turned into the paying public and taken the place that formerly belonged to advertisers and propagandists.

The membership model itself is presently practiced by a relatively few media organizations: there are only 162 names in the database of the Membership Puzzle Project as of June 2020. However, the ideology underpinning the membership model has already bridged foundation funding and subscription payments. Fundraising motives have infiltrated the subscription model. In its surrogate forms, the membership model has changed the nature of reader revenue and its impact on the mass media.

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The membership model has become perhaps the brightest (or even the only) beam of light in the media market over the murky past two decades. Many other media organizations have started applying different elements or versions of membership in their business.

Increasingly, media outlets are soliciting subscription as a donation to a public service of checking news against values. The value checking needs a strong value foundation. The need for the business to survive forces the media to shift its operational emphasis from news to values.

As a result, the former transactional mechanism of subscription is mutating into a membership, i.e. supporting a cause. When subscribing to a newspaper or a magazine, people are not buying news as they already know the news. They are paying for the appraisal of the news’ value, and therefore for the impact this news might have. They pay from below but with motives from above. They pay for the confirmation of the proper attitude toward the news and/or for this attitude to be delivered to others.

Thus, subscribers are gradually turning into two new categories of payers:

1) those who pay the validation fee for the news validation service of the media and

2) the donating audience contracting the media to influence others.

Both types pay the media not for news but rather for impact.

The paywall is increasingly becoming the mechanism for collecting the validation fee and soliciting subscription as donation.

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The hybrid of a transactional scheme with charity motives could not but come with consequences.

The membership model assumes that, through their donations, people join the cause of journalism. However, donations require the best possible triggers. The cause for donation to the media is inevitably shifting and will continue shifting to more triggering causes. The threat to democracy – or, taking the conservative media into consideration, too, political outrage – is a better trigger than simply the maintenance of journalism.

The media must search for more triggering causes and, at some point, they must produce them. When the motives of the membership model (joining the cause) are inserted into the transactional subscription model (selling the attitude), it politicizes and radicalizes the news media.

In the US, the ability to solicit support for a political cause under the guise of the cause of journalism, marks out the difference between those media outlets profiting from the Trump bump and those struggling to sell mere content, particularly local content.

Two decades ago, the American local megapolis newspapers were thriving enterprises, and the local news agenda was a valued commodity. Now they are rapidly in decline. Only those who switched to selling the audience to the public, along with the successful commodification of the Trump scare, are thriving; which is clearly seen in the chart tracing the subscription dynamics of the leading American newspapers (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Source: Joshua Benton, NeimanLab[3]

This chart can be interpreted as a testimony to the success of soliciting subscription as donation, on the one hand, and offering a political cause in the guise of journalism, on the other. News isn’t saleable, but agenda-setting still is (or is believed to be).

Those media selling news to the audience are doomed. Those selling the audience to the public will survive, as long as Trump and Trumpism are in the spotlight (or as long as some other equally triggering things keep happening after Trump is gone).

The huge gap in the subscription figures for these two and all the rest also confirms the hypothesis that news validation and the pitching of a cause contribute to media concentration. Because of the effect of significance validation by dissemination, only the largest media brands can provide such a specific news service.

If the winners take all, then it remains for the losers to only rely on patrons or foundation funding of a limited scale. Crowdfunding potential simply does not have the capacity to support all. Both validation fees and donscription tend to swarm around a few competing leaders.

A paradoxical situation emerges: while resting on a political cause, donscription demonstrates outstanding results, but only for a limited number of the largest media brands. Their success cannot be replicated by others. Despite this, the entire news industry follows the leading examples, desperately trying to profit from soliciting subscription as donation to a political cause. As for the most of media brands’ excuse – they basically do not have any other options left to pursue.

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[1] Van Duyn, Emily, Jennings, Jay, and Stroud, Natalie Jomini. (2018, January 18). “Chicago News Landscape.” Moody College of Communication. The University of Texas at Austin. https://mediaengagement.org/research/chicago-news-landscape/

[2] Rosen, Jay, & Peon, Gonzalo del. (2017, October 4). “Introducing the Membership Models in News Database for your use and contributions.” The Membership Puzzle Project. https://membershippuzzle.org/articles-overview/introducing-the-database

[3] Benton, Joshua. (2019, July 31). “The L.A. Times’ disappointing digital numbers show the game’s not just about drawing in subscribers – it’s about keeping them.” NeimanLab. https://www.niemanlab.org/2019/07/the-l-a-times-disappointing-digital-numbers-show-the-games-not-just-about-drawing-in-subscribers-its-about-keeping-them/

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Andrey Mir

An excerpt from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization”



Categories: Decline of newspapers, Future of journalism, Future of news, Postjournalism and the death of newspapers, Trumpism and Fake news

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