Print journalism needs a revolution to avoid a slow death: micro-payments are the way forward

Print journalism needs a revolution to avoid a slow death: micro-payments are the way forward

But it will only work with industry-wide collaboration

When did you last buy a newspaper? I’ve no idea when I did. It was certainly before this year and then will have been the local weekly; I haven’t bought a national paper in years – why would you? I do subscribe to a hard-copy weekly magazine (which also brings with it online access to their articles), but that’s a different thing

I’m not alone. In the last ten years, The Times has lost 27% of its circulation and is comfortably the best performer. The Mail is down 44%, The Telegraph 53%, The Guardian 54%, The Sun 58% and The Mirror’s circulation is down by some 64%. Between them, the daily circulation of those seven titles has dropped from 8.4m to 4.0m. Buying newspapers is very much a minority pursuit.

It’s not all bad news for them (as opposed to in them). Some 18% of UK adults were getting news from the Mail either on the web or in paper form, with 11% doing so from the Sun and the same number from the Guardian: figures way in excess of their paper-only circulations. Unfortunately, those internet platforms are free access so their income streams are restricted to the associated advertising. I’d also guess that readers’ interactions with news websites is a lot briefer than it is (or was) with the paper versions.

What to do? Some papers have tried to combat the decline in direct sales by restricting internet access and introducing online subscriptions and the Times and Sunday Times might well have made it work.

Even so, subscriptions are a cumbersome solution: fine for those who would have bought the same paper every day but not for the casual reader. I think the industry could do a lot better with the willpower and the imagination.

What if, rather than everything being either free-to-read or paywalled but for subscriptions, it was possible to buy articles on a case-by-case basis, for a few pence each?

Obviously, those who wanted to subscribe to a particular publication could do so and get unlimited access but people who just wanted the odd one now and again could get it without (1) committing to a contract, and (2) paying a lot, relatively speaking.

Further, what if it was possible to access these articles with a single account, a single password and a single monthly bill? Wouldn’t that be far more attractive to readers than a whole host of different systems?

There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be possible. Many industries work collaboratively across firms in order to provide win-win solutions. The music industry does so with royalties; the finance industry does so with (for example) how you can use just about any ATM to withdraw from your account at any bank. Why not have an industry-wide gateway to journalistic content, which keeps a track of what people read and distributes their fees to the respective outlets?

What is clear is that the current model is barely sustainable, if at all. People want news, analysis and reports but don’t have to pay for it – which is a problem as quality journalism costs money and as income streams decline (the classified as market is probably now lost forever), costs are being cut. That not only means there’s not likely to be the same amount of quality journalism (or indeed the same quality), but that stories that should be reported won’t be. The media can take too seriously its role in holding those in power to account – it is not a regulator, never mind an official opposition – but a vibrant press does play a vital part all the same.

It can have that future but will find it far easier if it works together. Micro-payments per article is my suggestion as to how it might do so but if not that, it will need to deliver on some other vision of life after newspapers.

David Herdson

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