Quality journalism needs financial resources to sustain itself. This simple fact is both inescapable and incredibly important, given the role that journalism plays in keeping governments accountable and civil discourse informed. Publications promote paid subscriptions as a source of funding, but, according to the American Press Institute, only 29 per cent of American adults pay for newspaper, magazine, or news site subscriptions. The 2017 Reuters Institute Digital News Report indicated an increase in paid subscriptions among millennials in the United States from 2016 and 2017, digital subscriptions to online news sources increased 14 per cent among individuals aged 18 to 24, and by 12 per cent among those from 25 to 34. This development seems to indicate a positive realization that if they want to see good journalism survive, young people today must open their wallets for quality-driven news organizations and up-and-coming digital platforms.
When a publication lacks financial resources, it can be forced to downsize or even fold. A 2016 Pew Research Report has indicated the U.S. newsroom workforce has shrunk by almost 40 per cent in the last 20 years. Without a profitable subscription base, it may also be incentivized to produce material that will maximize revenue generated from digital advertising. Since a publication receives a fraction of a cent for every reader that clicks on the ad associated with the article’s content, in order to generate traffic to their website, content producers must focus on what is marketable and viral, often at the expense of what is informative. Examples of this include clickbait, and the rise of “fake news” during the 2016 American presidential election. This is concerning for any citizen who wishes to be informed, not merely entertained, by the news.
Additionally, the online advertising market is extremely competitive with tech companies Facebook and Google dominating the field. Estimates indicate that Facebook and Google accounted for 89 per cent of the growth in the digital advertising market in 2016. In effect, these Silicon Valley giants have a duopoly over online advertising sales, decreasing the slice of the pie left for news outlets. As a result, it is essential that news organizations find ways to increase subscriptions profits, and decrease their reliance on online advertising revenue.
A 2017 study by the Media Insight Project determined that those who do pay for news value quality over cheapness. As such, a growth in millennial news subscriptions may indicate that young people are increasingly willing to pay for quality journalism, and, correspondingly, that there is greater profit to be found in the future in the form of subscriptions. Subscribing to receive a news organization’s content is like entering a contract: The consumer makes a commitment to an organization that they value for its ability to keep them informed through well-written, trustworthy, and thoughtful content. This is in stark contrast to some of the large digital platforms that have gained popularity, such as VICE, with a business model that has shifted toward fast-produced video content where ad revenue is more profitable, and away from written content that provides deeper analysis on a given issue.
Perhaps this is why young people in the United States are seeing the value in paid news subscriptions. Nic Newman, a contributor to the Reuters report, cites the outcome of the election and the misinformation that accompanied it as an important catalyst for this shift among young people back to traditional media, including the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post. The timing in this upsurge of young paid subscribers indicates that these individuals realize the particular importance of paying for journalism in a time of political turmoil and polarization. Young people are realizing the benefits of consuming content from journalists beholden to a subscriber base that demands the facts, not rhetoric.
Moving forward, it is important to get into the mindset of paying for reliable media sources, new and old, in order to ensure that the quality of journalism remains strong. This in turn will require news publications to continue making efforts to expand their digital subscription base.