Recently I wrote about Substack for GBH News — what was good about it (superior payment tools) and what was unimpressive (it’s just a bloggy newsletter, or a newslettery blog).
Writing the column sparked my interest in paid content, and that only intensified when I read Ben Smith’s piece in The New York Times about Heather Cox Richardson. A Boston College history professor who writes “Letters from An American” on Substack, Richardson is pulling in an estimate $1 million or so a year. She’s working very hard at it — a lot harder than I want to work. But it’s difficult not to be intrigued by the possibility of pulling in some money, even if it’s a tiny fraction of what she’s making.
I don’t want to move to Substack, and I don’t want to put any of my content behind a paywall. What I’ve done instead is set up a page on Patreon that lets you purchase a voluntary subscription to Media Nation for $5 a month. Subscribers will receive the additional benefit for an exclusive newsletter, although, to be honest, I haven’t figured out what to do with that yet.
Media Nation will remain free, and other than the newsletter, I’m not planning at the moment to do more than I’m already doing. (Of course, that could change if this takes off.) If you would like to lend your support to my work in the form of a subscription, I hope you’ll consider signing up.
As newspapers have moved away from making their content freely available online, a lot of thinking that seemed forward-looking a few years ago needs to be re-examined. Near the top of the list is the future of the newspaper bundle — that combination of local, national and international news, sports, comics, the crossword puzzle, the school lunch menu and myriad other features that traditionally comprised a daily newspaper.
In the early years of online news, when it seemed reasonable to imagine that digital advertising could subsidize free journalism, the bundle was often described as a relic of the industrial age. Disparate content was brought together, according to this line of reasoning, not because it belonged in one place but because printing was a high-cost manufacturing enterprise. It was logical for the local newspaper to be a one-stop destination for all kinds of material. But with print receding into the past, readers could skip from a hyperlocal website for community news, to a dedicated sports site, to yet another site for comics and puzzles,
“The web wrecks horizontal integration,” wrote C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky in their influential 2012 report “Post-Industrial Journalism.” “Prior to the web, having a dozen good-but-not-great stories in one bundle used to be enough to keep someone from hunting for the dozen best stories in a dozen different publications. In a world of links and feeds, however, it is often easier to find the next thing you read, watch or listen to from your friends than it is to stick with any given publication.”
But at a time when readers are once again being asked to pay for newspaper journalism, some sort of bundling is necessary. The days of regularly surfing among multiple free websites are drawing to a close. For any one newspaper to stand out as something to which readers will be willing to buy a subscription, it almost certainly has to offer a wide variety of content.
From the newspaper business’ point of view, the ideal reader would buy digital subscriptions to national, regional and local newspapers. But that’s asking a lot. The reality is that most people aren’t going to subscribe to any newspaper, and those who do are likely to choose one, maybe two. Which means that the newspaper needs to be all things to most people in a way that we thought was obsolete just a few years ago.
In early 2016 I interviewed Bill Marimow, the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, days after its billionaire owner, Gerry Lenfest, had donated the Inquirer and its related media properties to a nonprofit organization. (The Philadelphia story comprises a section in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls.”) The Inquirer was just getting ready to start charging for digital subscriptions. And I was struck by what Marimow told me he thought needed to be part of the daily mix.
“If you look at today’s paper,” he said, “you’ll see stories that represent the best of city news, Philadelphia suburbs, South Jersey, national and foreign.” I expressed some surprise at Marimow’s insistence on national and international news since the Inquirer relied almost exclusively on wire services for anything outside the Philadelphia area. His answer was that 90% of his readers did not read a national paper and thus relied on the Inquirer.
You see this at The Boston Globe, too. Before the internet began to take a toll on the newspaper business in the 1990s, the Globe — and many other large regional newspapers, including the Inquirer — had a number of U.S. and international bureaus. With the exception of a Washington bureau, those are all gone now. But the Globe continues to publish quite a bit of national and international news from wire services, both in print and online.
Ten years ago, that would have been described as old-media thinking. Now, with the Globe charging $30 a month for digital subscriptions, it makes a great deal of sense to position the paper as a single stop for most of its customers. After all, if the Globe forced its best readers to subscribe to The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal in order to get news from beyond the Boston area, there’s a real danger that they would decide to drop the Globe.
When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013, he announced that he wanted to reinvigorate the traditional newspaper bundle. “People will buy a package,” Bezos said. “They will not pay for a story.” Bezos’ attitude seemed archaic for someone who had made his reputation as a tech visionary. One of the Post’s younger journalists, Timothy B. Lee, went so far as to disagree with his new boss in a piece headlined “Sorry, Jeff Bezos, the news bundle isn’t coming back.”
“Trying to recreate the ‘bundle’ experience in Web or tablet form means working against the grain of how readers, especially younger readers, consume the news today,” Lee wrote. “In the long run, it’s a recipe for an aging readership and slow growth.”
It turned out that Bezos was right and Lee was wrong — not because Lee was mistaken about how the web had changed news habits, but because paywalls were going up everywhere, thus forcing a change in those habits whether readers liked it or not. Under Bezos’ ownership, the Post’s digital bundle has led to profits and growth, re-establishing the paper as a serious competitor to the Times.
With Google and Facebook capturing the vast majority of digital advertising in recent years, paid content has become the last stand. It may not work for more than a handful of mostly national titles. But, if nothing else, paywalls have given new life to the idea of the bundle that has traditionally defined the general-interest newspaper.
There was a time not too many years ago when nearly every newspaper except The Wall Street Journal made its journalism freely available online. This was not entirely crazy. At the dawn of the commercial web, newspaper executives were optimistic that free news would prove lucrative thanks to multimedia advertising and the dramatically lower cost of digital distribution compared to print. As The New York Times naively put it in 1996 when announcing the debut of its website, “With its entry on the Web, The Times is hoping to become a primary information provider in the computer age and to cut costs for newsprint, delivery and labor.”
The limits of that strategy became apparent starting about 10 years ago. Because of its very ubiquity, digital advertising lost its value, bringing in pennies — at best — compared to print. Far worse, Google and Facebook, neither of which existed when newspaper websites first popped into existence, now scoop up more than 60 percent of digital ad revenues. In response, newspapers began charging for digital content. Today, the idea that reader revenue is the future has taken on the aura of received wisdom.
Yet there remain questions about how much news organizations can charge for their journalism as well as how many subscriptions a typical internet user is willing to pay for. Last week, Lucia Moses of Digiday explored the issue at some length. And though there have been some winners, with the Times and The Washington Post leading the way, they are likely to be outnumbered by the losers. Moses quoted Vivian Schiller, a former executive with the Times and NPR, who offered this pessimistic assessment:
A lot of people are going, “Reader revenue, it’s working for The New York Times, it’s working for specialty publications; that’s our path.” I’m afraid for most news publishers, it’s going to end in tears.
In 2013, I began working on my book “The Return of the Moguls,” which was published by ForeEdge this week. My original idea was that a new generation of wealthy newspaper owners — Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos at the Post, financier (and Red Sox principal owner) John Henry at The Boston Globe, and entrepreneur Aaron Kushner at the Orange County Register — might figure out innovative ways of running newspapers and thus chart a path for the rest of their beleaguered industry. Over time, though, an additional plot line came into focus: all of them faced the challenge of how to move forward at the very moment when the old idea of free, web-based journalism was coming to an end.
Each of the three moguls approached the problem differently. Bezos, by far the most successful, repositioned what had been a large regional newspaper as a national digital news organization, going head to head with the Times. Bezos bundled the Post with Amazon and pursued a massive online audience with the goal of converting some small percentage of all that drive-by traffic into paying customers. Today, the Post reports more than one million paid digital subscribers and claims it has been profitable for the past two years.
Henry has pursued a number of different ideas at the Globe, some of which have worked out better than others. But Henry’s most elemental idea — that readers should pay for news — has also been his most successful. Despite charging the unusually high fee of $30 a month for digital subscriptions, the Globe is on track to pass the 100,000 mark during the first half of this year. If Globe executives can figure out how to double that, then the paper will be on its way to financial sustainability.
Meanwhile, the Globe’s print edition is being repositioned as a niche luxury product. As Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal reported Tuesday, the non-discounted price of home delivery is being raised to $25.90 a week. For that kind of money, Henry had better hope that the paper’s well-publicized printing and delivery woes are a thing of the past. The Globe’s digital and print fees are now both the highest of any general-interest newspaper, national or regional. It will be fascinating to see if Henry’s gamble pays off. (Update, March 9: In a comment posted to the Globe’s subscribers-only Facebook group, the Globe denied that it was contemplating a price hike of that magnitude: “There are no plans to raise our prices by 80% as reported by the BBJ.” Seiffert defends his reporting here.)
The third mogul, Kushner, is long gone, having stepped down in early 2015, several months before the Register slid into bankruptcy. Unfortunately for his newspaper, he had two main ideas, one good, one disastrous. The good: improve the print edition and make sure people were paying full rate for the paper’s journalism. A print-first approach certainly wasn’t forward-looking, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have worked for at least a few years. The problem was that Kushner added about 150 full-time journalists to his newsroom of 180 and then set about buying and launching additional newspapers in the hopes that advertising and circulation revenues would somehow magically materialize. Today the Register is owned by Digital First Media, the cost-slashing corporate chain that recently won the right to buy the Boston Herald.
Not everyone is pursuing paid digital. A few megasites like BuzzFeed and HuffPost have succeeded by attracting huge amounts of traffic while keeping the size of their staffs to a minimum. Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed’s media editor, shared Moses’ Digiday article on Twitter while adding his own warning:
In a year or two we'll see articles talking about how the pivot to subscriptions failed to pan out for some news orgs. But there is only so much subscription revenue available for news. It's a battle to capture it. https://t.co/1Gn00QXdbo
News organizations that rely on digital subscriptions must also compete with high-quality news sources, both national and local, that are free and are likely to remain that way — such as PBS, NPR, and their affiliates on television, radio and online.
Yet, for newspaper owners, there really isn’t much choice other than to ask readers to pay. The bright hopes that were expressed a quarter century ago have given way to realism. There is no one left to cover the costs of journalism except us. And if not enough of us are willing, then newspapers — still the most effective vehicle for holding government and other large institutions accountable — will continue to shrink and fade away.
The Spotlight Team found that the Veterans Administration hospital in Manchester, New Hampshire, was providing terrible care, with flies in an operating room, blood or rust on surgical instruments, and such poor treatment of veterans with spinal injuries that they ended up permanently disabled even though their conditions could have been corrected by surgery. Two officials have already been removed because of the Globe’s reporting.
I point these out because this is important work that simply wouldn’t otherwise be done at the regional level. The national media — especially The Washington Post and The New York Times — are doing an outstanding job of holding President Trump to account and digging into the Republicans’ various proposal to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. In such an environment, it’s vital that we not overlook what’s happening in our backyard.
Advertising will never pay the bills for journalism to the same extent that it did before rise of the internet. If we’re not willing to pay, we’re going to lose the watchdog function that journalism plays in a democracy. We pay for a number of local and national news sources, including the Globe and the Boston Herald, and I hope that you do, too.
As I told Bruce for a follow-up, it’s a bold move — maybe too bold. The Globe has had a lot of success with paid digital subscriptions, having sold around 78,000 of them as of last September, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. The AAM does a lot of double- and even triple-counting of digital (the Globe itself claims a more modest 65,000, according to Mohl’s article), but that’s still an impressive number.
I’m sure some subscribers will walk away rather than pay the higher fee, but probably not too many. If you’re paying to read the Globe, it’s most likely because you are a committed Globe reader of long standing. To invoke the old cliché, $1 is considerably less than the cost of a cup of coffee. Still, some will cancel:
Newspaper companies charge for content at their peril. News executives may chafe at giving away their journalism, but members of their audience don’t feel like they’re getting anything for free — not after paying hundreds of dollars a month for broadband, cell service and their various digital devices.
Interestingly, while the Globe itself is becoming more expensive, John Henry and company are also making some big bets on free with sites like Crux, BetaBoston, Boston.com and the forthcoming life-sciences vertical, which will be called Stat according to several employment listings I’ve seen.
I wish the Globe success as its executives try to figure out how to pay for journalism in the 21st century. But at this point I think it would be wiser to focus on building their subscriber base than trying to squeeze more out of their existing customers.
There’s a bit of non-baseball news at the end of Boston Globe baseball reporter Peter Abraham’s latest:
Finally, a programming note. All our written content will be exclusively in the Globe and on BostonGlobe.com from now on. That includes Nick Cafardo, Dan Shaughnessy, Chris Gasper, Julian Benbow and me. The Extra Bases blog on Boston.com will not have contributions from Globe baseball reporters.
The move is in accord with an announcement recently made by Globe editor Brian McGrory, so it’s not really a surprise — more of a confirmation. With the Globe’s online paywall a lot leakier than it used to be, there’s really no need for cross-platform sharing anymore.
Earlier today Media Nation obtained a copy of a message from Sean Burke, president and group publisher of GateHouse Media New England, announcing that GateHouse will experiment with metered paywalls at three of its daily papers — The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, The Enterprise of Brockton and The Milford Daily News. At a fourth daily, The Herald News of Fall River, the company will try a premium/freemium model.
GateHouse Media, based in suburban Rochester, N.Y., owns more than 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts, most of them weeklies. The full text of Burke’s message follows.
Gatehouse Mass. dailies going to “metered model”:
To: All GateHouse Media New England Employees
From: Sean Burke
Re: The Meters Are Here!
Today we are pleased to announce that we are under taking a very important and strategic step in the future of our business by introducing tactics to eliminate unlimited free access to our content.
For years now, it’s bothered me that we essentially undervalue the efforts of our hardworking journalists by giving away their content free on our websites. Plus, we do everything we can to drive people to our free content, through social media, promotions and more. On the circulation side the cannibalization of our own best efforts is clear to see: We ask people to pay for our print publications, while increasingly pointing them toward digital, where they can consume most if not all of the print content free.
We have been providing this value to readers and visitors for years, free of charge, and at the detriment of our core business, our paid print publications. As increasing numbers of readers choose digital options to satisfy their news and information needs, the circulation of our newspapers continues to trend downward.
No more. Today begins a paid content strategy on three of our daily newspaper sites:
MetroWestDailyNews.com, MilfordDailyNews.com and Enterprisenews.com. These sites will test what is called a “metered model.” Users will have access to 15 free articles each month. After reaching the limit, they will trigger a prompt that will give them a variety of payment options to allow them to continue to access content. We’re starting the meter high – allowing a higher level of free content – then we will begin to lower it, testing along the way, to find the optimum level. As always, readers can view an unlimited number of exclusive breaking news stories and community features on the home page, as well as enjoying full access to obituaries, section fronts and video.
In Fall River, at The Herald News, we’ll be testing a different model, which we refer to as “freemium/premium.” This model capitalizes upon the differing levels of consumption and engagement by our readers through versioning. We’ll continue to offer plenty of content to our more casual readers, but it will be just the basics of stories. We’ll ask readers who want a richer, more in-depth, interactive, multi-layered, and multimedia experience to join our brands as paid “members.”
In conjunction with this model we will launch a consumer loyalty and membership program, Herald News Perks, which gives “members” access to exclusive deals, contests and events beyond content.
We plan to learn a great deal from our initial venture into paid online content with these models, striving to emerge with refined approaches for what resonates in our many individual markets. Along the way, I invite your feedback on what you think works, what doesn’t and ideas for how we might continue to demonstrate the value of all of our products across all platforms.
Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory made a series of announcements earlier today about changes and appointments inside the Globe newsroom. His memo is online at Poynter. The most important news is that the Globe’s digital paywall is being lowered to allow access to 10 free articles a month before non-subscribers are asked to pay.
The spin on McGrory’s announcement is that this represents some sort of 180-degree turn. It doesn’t. It is a significant adjustment, but the Globe has been tweaking the paywall ever since its debut in the fall of 2011. About a year ago, for instance, I wrote a story for the Nieman Journalism Lab that the Globe was tightening up on social sharing in the hopes of persuading more people to pay. Now it’s moving in the other direction. But mid-course corrections have been part of the strategy from the beginning.
Not to get ahead of the story, but I wonder if the Globe’s move toward a much looser paywall might lead to the eventual abandonment of its two-site strategy — the paid BostonGlobe.com site and the free Boston.com. Yes, McGrory also announced some new appointments for Boston.com. But what’s now Boston.com content could be folded into BostonGlobe.com as free, online-only content that supplements the paid material. Newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have large amounts of online-only content but only one site.
A number of people I’ve talked with find the two-site strategy confusing. I have a more basic complaint: as a paying subscriber, I don’t think I should have to go to Boston.com for anything, whether it be Red Sox items or lottery numbers. It should all be on the site that I’m paying for.
McGrory’s announcement signals not a revolution but an evolution. It will be interesting to see what comes next.
Update: Gin Dumcius points out that McGrory’s memo says the two sites will remain separate and may even compete with each other. I want to emphasize that I don’t think the end of the two-site strategy is coming any time soon. I just think the machinery has been set in motion so that it might eventually make sense.
The flexible paywall that The Boston Globe introduced for its subscription website about a year and a half ago has slowly gotten a little less flexible. Fewer Globe stories are available on the paper’s free Boston.com site, and restrictions have been placed on social sharing.
The reason, according to Globe spokeswoman Ellen Clegg, is that the paper’s executives are still trying to figure out how to get paid online journalism right in a world awash in free news.
“The core of our two-brand strategy,” she told me by email, “involves trying to find the optimal balance between a free, ad-supported model and a premium, consumer-supported model.”
The restrictions were brought home to me recently when I learned that the paper had started limiting social media sharing to only two free links a month — a serious limit on someone like me, who regularly shares links on my blog, on Facebook and on Twitter. As a subscriber, I can share as many links as I like, of course. But non-subscribers can only click on two before getting a message that they cannot pass go.
So let’s run down the changes, shall we?
First, those social-media links. Clegg says that when BostonGlobe.com went live in the fall of 2011, social sharing was limited to five links per month. If so, it wasn’t well publicized. I’ve gone back and looked at some of the coverage, including a piece I wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab and the Globe’s own FAQ, and can find no mention of a monthly cap.
In any case, Clegg says that in December 2012, that number was cut to two links a month from search and social media — “per device, and per browser.” In other words, eight a month if you want to juggle among Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer (but who wants to do that?), and more if you move back and forth among other screens. “Email sharing,” she adds, “is unlimited.”
Second, when BostonGlobe.com debuted, the editors selected five stories a day that would also run on the free Boston.com site. Most sports stories ran on Boston.com as well. Last April, the number of free news stories was cut from five to four, and some additional sports content was moved behind the paywall.
“This is part of an effort to continually experiment, test and analyze how our readers engage with us digitally,” Clegg says. “We have been trying to find the right balance between the free-sharing culture of the Internet and paid access to premium Globe content. We believe that we can only arrive at that balance through experimentation.”
How well is it working? The Globe’s digital subscription base has risen, but slowly. Currently, Clegg says, the Globe has about 50,000 paid digital subscribers — but that doesn’t mean 50,000 people paying directly for a digital subscription. It’s a figure that includes digital-only subscribers; Sunday-only print subscribers (I’m one of them), who automatically get seven-day digital access; and seven-day print subscribers who access BostonGlobe.com at least once a week.
That’s how digital subscriptions are counted by the Alliance for Audited Media (formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations), and it’s a pretty expansive definition. As I’ve written before, about half of those counted as Globe digital subscribers get the paper delivered to their doorstep all seven days.
So is the decision by Globe executives to tighten the paywall smart or dumb? It’s hard to say. From the beginning, the idea behind the paid BostonGlobe.com site was to find a way to get regular readers to pay without turning away occasional readers and without hurting the free, advertiser-supported (and just-redesigned) Boston.com site. (Here is how Globe publisher Christopher Mayer explained it to me shortly after plans to build the paywall were announced in the fall of 2010.) Today, Clegg says, Boston.com attracts about 6 million unique visitors a month. Another 1.5 million uniques a month visit BostonGlobe.com, mainly as a result of the site’s free-access features.
I know that since I learned about the two-links-per-month limit, I’ve been looking for the equivalent content in Boston.com’s news blogs or elsewhere. I tend to shy away from BostonHerald.com unless I’m writing specifically about the Herald, since much of its content moves into the paper’s paid archives after two weeks. But there are plenty of other sources of free local news, even if it’s not always of the same quality as the Globe’s.
I’m inclined to cut the Globe some slack as Mayer, editor Brian McGrory and company grope their way into the future. But the new rules have already nudged me away from Globe content, and I’m a paying customer. That can’t be a good thing.