Tuesday 20 August 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'Media future need not be gloomy'

Stock image
Stock image
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

It's been a tough week in the media industry. We are back to interrogating a familiar question: how, and in what form, is news sustainable as a business?

For us in the private sector, it's an especially tricky challenge.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

Can subscription models replace newspaper cover prices? What about alternative models like membership clubs?

And even if we continue delivering journalism with commercial potential, are there simply too many publishers right now, an artefact of a pre-internet era?

I'm conscious that there are two different readers for this column. The first is a business or general consumer.

The second is a media industry colleague who is worried and very probably angry or resentful.

I shouldn't have to say it, but this column is overwhelmingly written for the former audience. It is intended to try and look at the issue (somewhat) dispassionately, not from a tribal, us-against-the-world point of view.

So I'll avoid the diatribes about why the public are letting themselves down by not buying certain products, or why the Government is endangering democracy by not giving media companies a subsidy or lowering Vat rates, or bemoaning the place of Google and Facebook in cornering the online advertising market.

Those are all arguable positions, but I don't think they address the fundamental issue, which is this: people now physically look at internet-connected devices (phones, mostly) more than any other single thing.

So while I absolutely believe some form of print media will survive in five, 10 and even 20 years into the future, the shift to screens has largely already happened.

Now it's up to media companies to show creativity and vitality in mastering those formats.

There are some signs of this happening. Amid all the gloom floating around, it's worth taking a minute to look at things that are working.

Maybe the biggest surprise this year is the Guardian. It has successfully persuaded millions of people to donate money online, in the spirits of a voluntary club membership. The result is a stunning turnaround in its finances. This year it broke into profitability (barely, by £800,000) after losing £227m over the previous seven years.

The Guardian was, let us remember, held up as the cataclysmic warning of the worst that can happen to a general interest newspaper embracing an open access online model. If it can turn things around, others must have hope.

True, its model of donations is very unconventional and may not be widely replicable.

But it's not unique, either. One of the most successful emerging commercial techniques among small new media ventures is Patreon, a subscription 'platform' which typically looks for €5 per month. Thousands of small online media businesses use it, from bloggers to podcasts.

One of the most successful Irish exponents is Second Captains, the sports podcast hosted by some of the former presenters and producers from Newstalk's Off The Ball sports show (which is itself showing some interesting development as a media business).

The last time the Second Captains owners spoke publicly about its subscription figures, it stood at over 10,000 per month.

That's €50,000 a month or €600,000 a year, divided among five founders after what are probably modest production costs. And that was almost two years ago: it's a solid bet that this has increased since then. If so, it's profitable, sustainable and driven entirely by its creators' passion for the subject matter.

In the US, some media companies have emerged that take a fundamentally different approach to serving news.

The Information, for example, holds conference calls on important issues with key editors and journalists for premium subscribers.

It also publishes who's who charts on organisations, institutions and companies you might be interested in. (This is valuable data that takes time to research but isn't available elsewhere - as such, it is probably one of the company's strongest subscription triggers, even if just temporary ones.)

The Information doesn't really bother with repeating wire copy or 'covering off' news that's available in 100 other outlets (except to offer a particular piece of analysis on it). But it does break stories from time to time. Add all this together and you have a marketable proposition that may be worth the €35-a-month subscription.

In Ireland, a new subscription news venture by former Sunday Business Post journalists Ian Kehoe and Tom Lyons is about to kick off, possibly with a similar reporting focus.

It is expected to be a product that focuses on investigative reporting and 'long reads'.

Other examples abound. I'm a subscriber to an email newsletter called Stratechery. Sent out by Ben Thompson, it's a flat $10-a-month fee for an almost daily analysis on a major issue in the news. Running at around 1,000 words per email, it's always intelligent and usually gives me another way of looking at an issue, from the media industry to Facebook's dominance to Amazon's challenges.

Three years ago, Thompson said he had 2,000 paying subscribers, earning him $20,000 a month. It's almost certainly a multiple of that now.

The fact is that a great deal more people are willing to pay for media than is commonly thought. That includes young people, wrongly thought of as wanting everything for free.

Thankfully, recent months have started to clarify the actual market value of individual media subscriptions.

The subscription intent is there. Media companies just have to deliver.

Sunday Indo Business

Also in Business