Censorship, political oppression and mistrust of established media damage freedom of the press worldwide. Economic pressure is another, often overlooked factor. A recent project using old-fashioned methods could be a game-changer for journalism.
Three thousand employees of news desks, including editors, fact-checker and graphic designers have lost their jobs in the US alone. Not because of the Corona crisis, but over the course of last year, because of financial hardship. The origin? Besides a reluctant shift to online platforms by traditional media outlets and a loss of advertising revenue, people have come to expect news to be free. While understandable, this mindset is not sustainable.
Change is Slow
Attitudes are changing. Both consumers and news outlets are reevaluating financial models. New approaches go beyond introducing subscriptions, even if that has proved successful in some cases. The Norwegian newspaper Dabladet, for instance, personalises subscriptions by analysing how much users read and adjusting the price accordingly. Despite some recent successes, news desks will likely need to keep reducing their staff. The platform Substack offers a new vision: journalists writing directly for their readership via email. The idea, old-fashioned as it may seem, comes from technology journalist and Substack founder Hamish McKenzie.
Outside of Traditional Media
Users no longer subscribe to media brands, but instead to individual newsletters, delivered directly to their inbox. People writing to people. Authors getting paid directly. While McKenzie is careful not to overstate the success of his venture and maintains that it’s not the only way to preserve an independent press, he also points to the sustainability of his model. Take the example of Ryan O’Hanlon’s No Grass in The Clouds newsletter: a football column previously exclusive to Bloomberg Newsweek. The more vitriol and entertainment a niche subject contains, the more in-demand the author will be. Online, this strategy has been proven time and again – by creatives such as musicians, video artists and illustrators on Patreon or Youtubers of all stripes. Recently, people have begun to use this model on the messenger service Telegram. Polemic increases follower counts and as with any online platform, there is a risk that people will give in to their worst impulses. Newsletters personally requested by readers, researched and crafted by experts in niche fields, offer a chance to counteract this mechanism. The development of Substack is encouraging and offers new modes of collaboration between established news outlets and self-employed authors. The subscriber data shows that journalists that write for traditional media have the most readers. They can leverage established channels to increase not only their readership, but also the trust of their readers.