I’ve never really needed to pay for my news. When I was a teenager, I’d buy magazines to learn about the latest in gaming, but by the time I reached 16 I was generally able to find what I wanted for free online. Paying for news just didn’t seem necessary.
However, we’ve paid a price for all this free content. The elimination of traditional newspaper revenue has meant that there’s far less money to pay people to do the hard work that good journalism requires. The defunding of professional journalism, along with the rise of competition from amateur blogs, has led to a huge reduction in the quality of our information.
The internet has given us an almost unlimited quantity of free information, but many people still yearn for quality. People are frustrated that there is so much fake news and misinformation, not least because it is exacerbating the divisions in our societies. If we could reliably get accurate news by paying for it, I think a lot of us would be willing to open our wallets.
So I’m willing to start paying for my news, but only if—and this is a big if—the news industry starts offering a service that I’m willing to pay for. The industry needs to recognise that, rather than subscribe to a single publication, most of us prefer to pick articles from a variety of sources. And it needs to exercise quality control.
I’ve sometimes tried paying for news. I’ll take up an offer of a trial subscription to an individual publication, and even enjoy it for a week or so, but I always find that I don’t use it enough to justify the price. These subscriptions offer good value if you want to read all the content that the particular publication offers, but that’s just not what I’m looking for. I prefer to read a sampling of articles from a variety of sources.
If there were a subscription service that charged, say, £5 a month for access to 50 paywalled articles of our choosing per month, or £10 a month for 100 articles, with no advertisements, that would give me the value for money I’m looking for. The business model might be similar to Spotify’s subscription model, which offers access to a variety of music.
A service like that would give publishers a new source of revenue, because it would attract customers who aren’t currently paying for their news. Some publishers might worry that people would drop their current subscriptions to individual publications in favour of this new service. But their most avid readers would presumably want to keep those subscriptions in order to read more than a limited number of their articles. It would be mostly the readers who do not currently subscribe to these individual publications who would tend to be attracted to a service like this.
I think there is a gap in the market here that’s waiting to be exploited.
The key to persuading people to start paying for news is to ensure that they get something that free content doesn’t reliably provide: a guarantee of quality.
The internet may have exacerbated the problem of fake news, but it certainly didn’t start it. There have always been publishers for whom the profits made from publishing fake news outweigh the costs. In most other industries, consumers have some recourse if a purchase has not met their expectations for quality. If a bottle of milk we’ve purchased is sour when we first open it, we can expect to get our money back. If a builder hasn’t done a job to the promised standard, we can withhold payment until she completes it. If we discover horsemeat in our beef burgers, we can expect compensation. But there is no way for consumers to be compensated for getting bullshit in their news!
Calls for quality control often raise concerns about how this might work in practice. Is there a way to objectively assess the quality of an article? Is there a risk that those given the power to judge would simply impose their own opinions? Can we guarantee that this wouldn’t lead to the suppression of true stories that the content providers don’t wish the world to hear?
Many means of quality control already exist. Many people make objective judgements about the legitimacy of claims made in news articles. Courts already make such judgements in libel cases. And journalism already has standards of practice and ethical codes that provide guidance. For example, in the UK, the major publications have set up a private regulatory body with a code of practice that details what good journalism should look like. Journalists and editors know exactly what they should and shouldn’t be doing.
Since there are already libel laws, standards of practice and regulatory bodies, why would we need further quality control? Unfortunately, private regulatory bodies don’t have the authority to enforce their standards. Their sanctions provide very little deterrent to publishers who profit from fake news. And while a successful libel case imposes a significant penalty, this only happens when an article includes clear defamation and the victim has sufficient time, money and will to fight a protracted court battle: libel laws only compensate the victims of the most egregious cases, rather than providing regular quality control.
The kind of subscription service I’m proposing could provide a market mechanism that results in quality control, by demonetising articles that a designated regulator has found fall short of certain standards. If we had that, we would finally have brought journalism in line with industries whose products we don’t pay for when they are faulty. We would have removed the financial incentives that make fake news profitable.
If I was a bit more entrepreneurial, I would start a campaign to publicise this idea and circulate a petition that people could sign to show that they would be willing to pay for such a service. Once enough people had signed, I would present the idea to major publishers as evidence of the numbers of potential customers they could expect, and negotiate a contract that would allow me to launch this kind of service.
If someone who is entrepreneurial would like to have a crack at making this idea a reality, I would very much like to be one of your customers!