Robert Picard: “a subscription model is not the silver bullet”

Subscription models are becoming more important to publishers. In a Reuters Institute survey of 194 global publishing execs, digital subscriptions were listed as the most important revenue stream in 2018, by 44 percent. “But a subscription model is not the silver bullet”, says Professor Robert G. Picard, senior research fellow at Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford.

We’re in a digital age where journalists keep mourning print and are trying their best to embrace online journalism. Newspapers have changed dramatically from their roots: journalism is not only about informing people anymore, it has become more complicated. The income of advertisement in journalism is rapidly shrinking, so new ways to generate money are needed. That’s why Picard thinks a drastic change is needed in how we look at the audience, because they are a big part of the answer.

What’s your opinion about membership models for modern journalism?

“A membership model is not the end. I know, it’s how media companies often see it. Once their readers become members, they simply stop engaging with them. You can’t ignore them after they’ve become your members and connect with them only when it’s time for your members to pay for their annual subscription. It’s the beginning of a relationship. Engage on a regular basis, show interest in their needs, open up for discussions and feedback about your site, apps and your content. They’re paying customers, so they expect something from you. For example, if they want to see more quality and more personal orientated news, you have to give them that. They are the ones wearing the pants nowadays. But you need to engage in a way that is useful for both parties: people want to feel they have influence on the company and the content, while you can build on them for feedback, help and, of course, money.”

“It’s the start, not the silver bullet”

“For the most, memberships bring in small amounts of money, so it may not be the solution for every media company. But if your public is very engaged and you notice that it’s working out well for you, membership might be a mechanism to start getting people even more engaged. It’s also far more approachable than a paywall, which your public will probably just ignore. That won’t result in the engagement you get from a membership model.

But be aware: a membership model is definitely not the silver bullet. It is an important part of the plan to get sustainability, to keep you alive and to engage more. It gives you access to the most valuable people, who want to be part of your community. But it’s not the answer to all the problems journalism is facing right now. And we won’t have that answer anytime soon. The problems are far too complicated to be solved at just the click of a finger.”

Why is knowing your audience so important?

“Because, these days, ‘being valuable’ is key to a sustainable news organization. So newsrooms who aren’t giving value to their readers, shouldn’t exist: those newsrooms deserve to die. If you’re not doing the kind of journalism that keeps your audience happy, that keeps them engaged, that keeps them coming to you and say ‘wow, you’re doing good stuff’, then what is your purpose? If you don’t give the social benefits to them that journalism should give, can’t keep them interested or can’t present them with important content that makes them understand the world around them or make their lives easier, then you shouldn’t be in this world at all. You need to see what you’re trying to achieve as a company, what you serve and how you want to be seen. If you don’t have a purpose, you can’t build value around it and you won’t get value from your audience. If you’re not doing something important as a newsroom, there’s actually no reason for the enterprise to be there.”

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What should be the big change in how newsrooms treat their audiences?

“The relationship between the audience and the news organizations should no longer be seen as an arms length relationship. Most news organizations were always much closer to their advertisers than with their readers, users and viewers and they still are. They would meet with them on a regular basis, they would talk with them about how they can create special features, how they can do certain coverages or sections like special event sections about weddings, technology or whatever. Whereas the audience was always kept at an arm’s distance, we didn’t want to hear from them. ‘They might not like what we’re doing, they might write nasty letters about us or place negative comments, we’ve got to be suspicious of them.’ The approach of the audience was always kind of negative. And it wasn’t the journalist’s primarily intention to do so, but the organizations. They colored a lot of what their journalists were doing.”

“You need the kind of relationship with your users that you’ve had with your advertisers all these years”

“But in this 20th century, a lot has changed. Now, you can’t have that coloring anymore, because the advertising is no longer the primary source of income. The source of income has become the people that are reading, viewing or listening to you. That’s why you need much closer, better relations with them than you’ve had in the past. The kind of relationship you’ve had with your advertisers all these years.”

What about clickbait? A lot of organizations are trying that to reel in their users…

“The clickbait stories usually don’t attract your most heavy regular readers. They’re not the people that remember you, they’re not people that pay for you. You need to look at the people at your core and you really need to understand what they’re looking at in the long run. What they want you to be that others are not and why they’re especially coming to you and not the others. They’re not all gonna say ‘give me more celebrity news!’ because they can get it everywhere else – and you’re probably not gonna do that bit of news as well as a celebrity news site or magazines, so you shouldn’t do that at all.

Your hardcore news consumers are looking for explanations, they want analyses, they want the stuff that goes beyond the day to day flow of events because that’s available from all the other services. They want to know what it all means, how they could use it, how they can prepare for what is coming because of it. Those are actually the things journalists aspire to write – or at least should aspire to write. They want to ask themselves those questions.”

What should be the major change in newsrooms?

“The issue there is how the editors and the publishers think about their use of time. The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough journalists, the problem isn’t that the journalists haven’t got enough time, the problem is that they’re being used badly to do many of their jobs. If you throw a bunch of stories at a journalist and say you want twenty stories out of it by the end of the day, of course they will give you the twenty stories, but they will all be 400-500 words and they are gonna not be very important because they lack depth and analyses. Why don’t you just say: we’re not going to do that, we’re just going to take people off and give them one important story a day or even one big story a week, which would result in more interesting stories. It’s not like there are any journalistic rules that require you to publish those twenty stories a day. It’s not like this has a time limit.

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Right now, editors are trying to be everything to everybody and they still believe quantity is important rather than the quality of the stories. And as long as that leads your operations, whether it’d be in print or in digital, you’ll never be able to create the greater kind of in depth analyses and explanations which give value and which the readers who are real, hardcore news information consumers constantly tell researchers that they want to see. You, as an editor, can make it possible to give them exactly that what they want, but you should take as much time and effort as you need for it.

If all you’re doing is chasing clicks, because you think it brings you advertising, you’re wrong. It’s not going to bring you in advertising in any way. You’re going to get much more money from subscribers when you give them content that they can’t get anywhere else than you’re going to get from the advertisers, which is a source of income that is shrinking rapidly in this business.”

What should all news organizations start with?

“It all starts with your purpose, which is why I think many news organizations need to take a step back and ask themselves ‘what is it we’re trying to do?’ Understanding that basic mission of the organization is really important before you go out building value. If you don’t have a mission, how can you start building value around it? And even if you have established who you are and what you’re trying to achieve, you should never forget looking back at it and updating it. If your company is 1500 years old you might kind of forget your mission, so then you need to go back and rebuild the mission. Digital startups mostly have the best missions, because they are actually asking themselves ‘what is it I am trying to achieve and what am I doing different from all the other ones that exist?'”

Finally, what is the number one thing that news organisations should do right now?

“They should ask themselves ‘who am I producing this story for, and what are they going to get from it?’ Every journalist in the world should know the answer to that question. If you don’t, you’re never going to get it right.”

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