Saturday 29 April 2017

John McGee: Unified paywall for trusted media worth exploring

Innovative call for a new way of funding traditional journalism in the battle against 'fake news' deserves to make headlines

Trust is also one of the important considerations that brands and their agencies take into account when deciding their media plans (Stock picture)
Trust is also one of the important considerations that brands and their agencies take into account when deciding their media plans (Stock picture)

John McGee

Anyone who has been keeping an eye on the daily fallout and leaks emanating from Donald Trump's crumbling administration will know that it's the traditional print media that has been responsible for breaking many of the stories, setting the agenda and standing up to its bullyboy tactics.

Likewise, anyone who has been following the shocking travails of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe and his quest for justice over the past few weeks will also know that the print media has been to the fore in highlighting his plight and the subsequent fallout from the debacle.

Two completely different storylines yet two hugely significant and unfolding stories that clearly demonstrate the importance of good old-fashioned journalism and the role that it plays in a functioning democracy. Now that we appear to have crashed through the looking glass into a dystopian world peppered with fake news, alternative facts and bullyboy PR tactics, the need for this traditional gumshoe reporting has never been greater.

In the post-factual world we now find ourselves in, however, there is a palpable sense that the traditional print media, together with its online assets, might be enjoying a mini-renaissance as people clamour around news brands they can trust at a time of great uncertainty.

In all of this trust is key. Trust has always been one of the big calling-cards for established news brands for a long time. While it has to be earned and is hard fought for, it should never be taken for granted either.

Trust is also one of the important considerations that brands and their agencies take into account when deciding their media plans.

So when the sales department of a news brand knocks on the door of an media agency, you can sure that trust enters the conversation within the first few minutes, according to Mark Delany of Mediaworks, part of Core Media.

"This trust is something on which sales departments have traded when making a case for print to advertisers. They suggest that the environment of trust lends added credibility to the content of the advertisement. However, in a time when trust and influence are being called into question, we need to think deeply about how to rebuild them," he says.

Delany, one of the co-authors of Core Media's annual Outlook report, also notes that while publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post may be getting it right now, it wasn't always the case.

He points out that in the run-up to the US elections "around 8pc of all US voters relied on Facebook as their main source of news. This was third behind Fox News (19pc) and CNN (13pc). The first print title to appear was The New York Times, in 10th position, with just 3pc. It could be argued that so-called 'fake news' had more effect on the election than the press, one of the pillars upon which society is purportedly built. The term 'news' is currently equally associated with mistruth as it is truth. In what looks like a post-truth world, it is essential for news media to build an industry-wide, global, campaign to remind people of the critical role they play in society".

In any conversation about media and journalism, however, all roads invariably lead back to the issue of costs and how news brands continue to fund quality journalism. According to Delany, print advertising, the mainstay of the media industry in Ireland, declined by 9.4pc to €152m last year with a further decline of 9.5pc forecast for 2017. For news brands that continue to fund quality journalism, this poses all kinds of challenges.

Delany, however, believes that one solution might rest with the introduction of a special paywall. While most news brands have their own strategies and views on paywalls and their merits, Delany may have latched on to a possible winner.

"People must pay for news; therefore, paywalls of some kind are necessary and media owners should not have to apologise for them," he says.

"For any meaningful paywall to be effective it would have to be adopted by all news websites at the same time. As a small market, there is an opportunity here for Irish news organisations to set an example for other markets and demonstrate true innovation in their medium," he adds.

"From the consumer's perspective, the fee for access would need to be nominal - €5 per month or €50 per year. Once subscribed, access to all participating sites should be granted - 100pc of the revenue generated by the paywall should go directly towards a journalism fund managed by trustees. This could potentially help offset staff costs for media owners and fund independent journalistic projects deemed to be of wider social importance," he says.

Based on an initial annual uptake of 10pc of the adult population, the fund could generate more than €17m in revenue, he adds.

While some news brands may be reticent about the idea, it's certainly a novel one and worthy of further consideration.

Contact John McGee at john@adworld.ie

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