April 30, 2017 by Ed Kennedy
The Rise of Fake News Reinvigorates Subscription Model Debate
Since inception subscription models for newspapers have been a hard sell. It is also not hard to see why. Sure, there is the question of quality, of brand loyalty, and even incidental spending – a main masthead in the author’s hometown of Melbourne currently campaigns on subscription for just 50c (USD 38c) a day – but the essential challenge to this has been ‘why would I buy access to news when I can get it for free?’
In an effort to win subscriptions many newspapers have been receptive to a freemium model. From the Age in Melbourne all the way across the world to the New York Times, many newspapers have given readers a form of free access. This may be 1 article a day (reset every 24 hours), all the way up to 30 articles a month (not reset daily but merely capped at 30), and beyond.
While there are those who’ll happy pay for news, or feel incentivised by the promise of new and bonus content, when online news was free for so long, the idea of now needing to pay for it is still something many readers would find unpalatable. The past year has changed this in a big way.
The Devil is in the Details
Tracing the exact origin of fake news is difficult, and this is made all the more so by the difficulty in defining what makes its fake exactly, and in turn how that definition changes over time.
The speed in which the online age moves – compounded with a diminishment in the traditional ‘silo’ approach to journalism in newspapers and other media outlets – means fake news is not only difficult to define, but as Merriam Webster points out: has also been around for a long time.
The elusiveness of a universal definition notwithstanding, fake news is recogniseable pretty quickly to a trained eyed. It shall commonly be hosted by a news site with a name you don’t recognise, written by a writer (if attributed at all) with no bio or social media, and usually quoting facts and sources as truth that come from very dubious news sources.
A key example of a suspect source is seeing a ‘reputable’ story built on a gossip magazine’s quote from inside an intelligence agency like the CIA. It’s not that the CIA are really delighted about speaking to the media about a breaking news story anyway, but they’ll speak much sooner with NBC or CNN instead of talking with a site like HawtHollywoodRumours.com
Even if well-written, stories built off links to dubious news sources is always a big warning sign.
But Old News is Still Boring
Nobody likes being taken for a fool. And few truly fair minds would keep reading fake news once they learn it’s indeed bull. This solves one problem in the subscription news model – removal of competitors – but it dosen’t automatically solve the issue many media outlets have had since the start of online subscription: why should I pay when other news is out there for free? Previously this question has been very difficult for many newspapers to answer. Low subscription rates have been tried, promises of bonus subscriber content, and even promotion of key writer’s and features behind the paywall – e.g ‘legendary business journalist John/Joan Smith writes exclusively for our subscribers here’ – and all have had mixed results.
Part of the trouble has undoubtedly been diversity. Niche magazines, video productions, and even individual creatives have all found success – some stratospheric – with business models that put their content and the requirement of payment for it front-and-center. Newspapers that focus on today’s news, sports, and weather shall always struggle to attract such a niche audience. They shall also struggle to provide sufficient exclusivity surrounding content and writers in each field to truly make the idea of reading their content exclusively an appealing idea.
With the rise of fake news this narrative has begun to change, and change in a big way. This has been done by many news outlets shifting tack from an emphasis upon the benefits a reader shall receive in subscribing to the negative experience they shall have by not subscribing. The New York Times has begun doing this is a clear and overt way, emphasising a subscription to the New York flagship is an investment in accuracy over fallacy.
Others are getting in on the act too. The Washington Post recently revived its prior motto “Democracy dies in darkness” following the 2016 presidential election. For its part, the Post has pointed out the motto is one they have used previously, but its timing following the US presidential election that saw both candidates and their parties accused of perpetuating fake angles illustrates a deeper cynicism and uncertainity resides in the minds of many readers.
Reviving such a motto just a year or two ago – a blink of the eye in history, and in the certainties the postwar liberal order delivered so much of the world’s politics and international affairs – would be unimaginable. Its emergence once more today signifies the shift seen in recent times is unlikely to be one that eventually returns us back to prior norms, but instead signifies the start of something new.
Like or loathe the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, his ascendancy likely represents a shift in the tone and style of US politics that has also been mirrored across the world, with the UK’s Brexit, and rise of longtime outsider Marine Le Pen to be a major presidential candidate in France. These political events may not be the direct effect of fake news, but have arisen alongside it, and each represented a shift away from prior certainty.
It is in the longing for that certainty that subscription model media outlets have the chance to grow once more. The lasting impact of the fake news shift shall take a while to be borne out. While the potential for it to become more prevalent is substantial, so too do robust initiatives and high profile efforts – such as Facebook’s recent crackdown on fake news sites – affirm any prediction fake news is here to stay and impossible to combat in any way would also be wrong.
Either way, for many major newspapers, its existence is a case of swings and roundabouts. Fake news may draw attention readership from a newspaper – and especially if it’s content is ‘dry’ and ‘boring’ compared to highly sensationalised fake content – but shall offer mastheads the chance to draw a clear line the sand.
For those papers that have long looked for a reason to champion subscription models, they’ve now a new headline. By paying for a subscription the selling point is you’ll get access to a reputable newspaper with professonalism, accuracy, and certainity surrounding the content.
Previously, these values may not have seemed so imperative. While few readers would decry them outright, the foundational involvement of blogs like the Drudge Report breaking the President Clinton/Lewinsky scandal all the way back in the 1990’s, the rise of the Wikileaks era – and a perceived divide between mainstream media and ‘the rest’ of society – have all contributed to many consumers turning just as quickly to a comedy show or gossip site for their news as an old flagship paper.
Never have these values been so important until the marketplace was overrun by the fake news phenomenon. Just as a rocket ship needs an enormous surge to lift off, so may traditional media outlets find this new challenger for consumers is the fire they need for subscriptions to take off.
They just also need to make clear the value of their mission as they do so.
Ed Kennedy is a journalist and web designer proudly from Melbourne, Australia. Say hi to Ed via firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Edkennedy01