For much of journalism’s history, it has run on the subscription model, wherein readers pay a monthly fee in exchange for a set number newspapers and magazines. But in the age of free content online, that transactional model collapsed and publications have been scrambling to find a new way to fund their activities whilst not alienating their readers.
Indeed it’s a strange quirk of the digital era that readers often forget that the words they’re reading online cost money to make; now, more than ever publications seem to be reminding them in a manner that is new to journalism. We’re used to the model of the direct appeal from charities or non-profits—where those organizations essentially plead with their visitors for monetary support—but recently, we’ve been seeing the rise for the direct appeal on many publications’ websites.
This differs from the subscription model as it’s not obligatory. In other words, with a subscription model, if a reader is not a paying subscriber, then they run into a paywall that prevents them from reading articles after an allotted monthly amount. In the direct appeal model, readers could theoretically read the content for free because there is no paywall, but the publication is relying on their goodwill for support. While publications using the direct appeal model know that not every reader will pay, they are tugging at the sense of citizenship of their most devoted readers, asking them for financial support despite it not being required.
If this sounds like perhaps it wouldn’t work, you might be surprised to learn that several publications have been having considerable success with it. The Guardian just reached the 200,000 mark on its Membership scheme. With no paywall to the Guardian’s website, these 200,000 members have opted into supporting the Guardian each month despite the fact that they could read its online content for free. According to the paper’s editor, Katherine Viner, that amount along with one-off donations and the paper’s 185,000 physical print subscribers who receive a newspaper every day is a significant contribution to keeping the business model afloat: “By April 2019, we hope to be supported by the equivalent of 1 million members, who will help secure the Guardian’s future in a tough commercial environment. Advertising conditions remain highly treacherous, with advertising in the Guardian — which helps pay for our journalism — down £11m this year. For every new advertising dollar spent in the US, 99 cents is now taken up by Facebook and Google.”
Another high profile publication that has utilised the direct appeal model is the San-Francisco based investigative outlet Mother Jones, which has a long reputation has a reputable liberal magazine in America. But when they published a lengthy undercover report about the state of American prisons, they received myriad awards and positive reader feedback. Thus, the editors saw an opportunity to show readers the economics of making a story like that. “When that story came out, we opened our books and said, ‘look, this cost $350,000 give or take, to produce,” CEO Monika Bauerlein told the journalism website Poynter. “And the advertising that you see on the page brings in $5,000 or $6,000. So the [difference] between those two numbers is where reader support comes in. And we started making a case for sustaining gifts as opposed to traditional donations that happen one time.” The editors report that since launching this campaign, they’ve seen “hockey stick” growth in sustaining contributions.
You may not see a huge difference between paying monthly to receive a magazine and paying monthly to support a magazine that you’re reading online. However, in terms of digital economics this seems to be a turning point. If readers accept the fact that the reported stories they are reading on a screen—something they can find for free at a number of outlets—cost money to make ethically and truthfully, they might be willing to pay for it even in the absence of a physical product like a magazine. If this idea spreads, it could be the game-change that the publishing industry has been desperate for.