Business Technology

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Subscriptions will save media

The Second Captains blog grosses more than €50,000 a month. Photo: INPHO
The Second Captains blog grosses more than €50,000 a month. Photo: INPHO
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Are subscriptions the future of media? It certainly feels like it, looking at my most recent credit card statement. All told, I'm heading toward €100 per month.

It's not just the entertainment apps that are making my monthly statements heavier.

In the last 18 months, I have noticed a mounting number of email newsletters, podcasts and any number of trial Patreon services that I'm getting sucked into.

In most cases, I regard the subscriptions as a bargain. I can point, for example, to Ben Thompson's excellent daily Stratechery email, which costs €8.50 a month. Or Spotify which, at €15 per month for a 'family' subscription, has reignited music discovery (for me) in an age of vanilla music radio.

And Netflix (€11 per month) increasingly seems like good value compared to cable and satellite alternatives.

But in an age where there are big questions around how journalism will be funded in future, are subscriptions a mainstream answer?

Apple appears to think so. It recently bought the online magazine aggregator Texture and reportedly plans to integrate it into its own premium subscription offering.

This could give such a service a real boost. Up until now, subscription aggregators like Texture (which is US-only) and Readly (available here) have struggled to hit a mass market scale. This is partly because they've never been that great a user experience, having to do the best they can in digitising what essentially amount to high-resolution PDF files from traditional publishers.

Readly, for example, feels like an app from 2010 and is little more than high-res images of magazine pages you can flick through. There are no proper search facilities (you can search for magazines, but not text within magazines). You can't read any of the articles in plain text, either. So while it might work on a large tablet or a laptop, it's fairly useless on a phone, even on one of the newer models with five- or six-inch screens.

However, this lack of functionality is probably reflected in the subscription price. €10 month (around €2.30 per week) really is a pittance for access to the catalogue available, if there are even just two or three of the 200 titles that you're interested in.

An example of a system flourishing, albeit on a micro level, is Patreon, an online portal that gives podcasters, musicians and other media professionals a platform for attracting their own audiences, who individually pay a fiver a month.

In Ireland, there are some real success stories taking advantage of this.

Second Captains, a five-man team who used to work on Newstalk's Off The Ball sports programme, now have over 10,000 paying monthly subscribers, grossing over €50,000 per month. And that's not including other revenue streams such as the regular events they do around the country. It would be surprising if the five founders are not making substantially more now than they made when they were employees at an established radio station five years ago.

There probably isn't a much clearer proof point in the market right now that if people like something, many will pay for it. The notion that people aren't willing to buy media has always been a little flimsy. Thankfully, internet distribution models are now creating opportunities for those willing to use a giant, almost-free resource to as a shop.

That said, I've noticed a few habits in my recent subscription history.

I'm less likely to cancel a subscription to something if it costs €5 or less, even if I don't use it that much. A good example is Adobe, which I've been paying €5 per month for the last six months, though I barely use its mobile Lightroom app ("it could come in very handy if I'm stuck"). An even better one is Google Drive (€2 monthly for 100GB of storage). I could almost certainly rearrange my digital files more efficiently and save that fee, but I can just never be bothered.

It's a different matter with the more costly subscriptions. Here, I'm not afraid to chop and change. I recently cancelled my FT subscription as I just wasn't using it enough. (This is partly because its app is a bit dry and not (to my mind) all that user friendly; but it's also because the FT has fallen off a little on the subjects I'm most interested in - tech, media and culture - and, when it does cover them, it writes on them in a stuffy, anglo-centric way.)

That cut a huge wad (€34) off my monthly subscription dues, though the saving was short-lived, as I immediately signed up to the WSJ (€33 per month and here's a pro tip: the American edition is far more readable, informative and entertaining than the European edition).

What I found self-revealing was that I was only willing to give the FT up when I found something else I thought would do a better job in the same space. In this case, the WSJ is better for what I'm interested in but - crucially - has a much better app, meaning I actually use it.

Moving away from the FT reminded me of the underbelly that many media companies have when it comes to subscriptions - the deliberate fog around letting you cancel. It's disheartening to see how many traditional media firms do not allow you to cancel using the same app or site you signed up with. In what must amount to a questionable legal practice, some even make you phone up (in their own chosen hours) and go through a tedious rigmarole about 'why you want to cancel' and 'whether you're sure' you want to cancel. (The FT prompted me to phone, but eventually accepted an email cancellation.)

Thankfully, no such messing exists with some of the newer, more innovative media services. For example, I signed up for Jessica Lessin's online tech site The Information, at $40 (€32) per month. After realising it wasn't for me, I cancelled and it only took me about 20 seconds. Knowing it's that easy, I'll definitely consider checking it again in future.

Are subscriptions the future for media? I'm not sure. But it feels like it.

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