The subscription news model is good business, but not for the public

Good journalism requires money, but a lot of people simply can't pay for it.

Sree’s newsletter is produced w/ Zach Peterson (@zachprague). The chart above (from Sara Fischer’s worthy Media Trends newsletter for Axios) shows just some of the streaming services available in the US (one of my favorites, Britbox $6.99 for, yes, British TV shows, isn’t listed). We’ve been thinking about subscriptions - news and otherwise - and that’s the subject of the main piece below.

Scroll down for Read Something; Watch Something; a weekly tech tip from Robert S. Anthony (@newyorkbob), and much more.

TUNE IN: #NYTReadalong - our guest this week is Ralph Blumenthal, author and NYT reporter for 45 years - 8 am ET, live or later.

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There’s a lot of talk in the marketing and advertising worlds about Google’s move away from third-party cookies for tracking people as they move around the internet. It signals a big change in how the ad-based web works, and will likely serve to move the publishing industry even more towards subscription models.

The shift from third-party trackers has been happening for a while (Safari and Mozilla already block them), and there is broad consensus that first-party data—information a specific business has about its unique audience—is probably more valuable anyways. At scale, this is certainly true, but there are downstream effects, especially for the news industry.

Smaller local news outlets have been steadily contracting for a decade or more, and the industry-wide shift to subscription models has only hastened that trend. Now, subscription models for independent journalism—and non-journalism, of course—like Substack, Revue, Medium, and more, further complicate things. Importantly, all of these different platforms are already driving “subscription fatigue” among users. I can’t help but think of the larger effects of the walling-off of quality journalism is doing to society.

What had been a steady erosion of fact-based discourse became something much worse. Misinformation, lies, conspiracy theories—we all know them, and someone (or several people) who have been misled—have found purchase, and there is an entire ecosystem built around their amplification. I am convinced that part of the issue here is that world-class journalism, the sort of reporting that is consistently reliable and trustworthy, is increasingly behind a paywall of some sort. And those subscriptions add up.

If you subscribe to a couple of major news outlets, a magazine or two (even digital-only), and want some good analysis from some Substack writers, it’s pretty easy to get to something north of $100 per month—a financial commitment a lot of people simply cannot make. If you can’t pay for your news, you’re forced to severely ration your clicks to major websites to keep those free monthly articles available, and rely on social media.

There are other choices that affect this as well. When I discuss this with my students, many of them frame the financial trade-off not in terms of the type of information at all. For the price of three Substack subscriptions and a digital subscription to The Times, they could have Disney+, the new Paramount+, Netflix, and Amazon Prime with money left over. I know I balk at the idea of paying hundreds of dollars (or more) per year on Substack subscriptions on top of everything else, and the supply of available subscriptions does not appear to be slowing down.

It’s interesting that the great de-bundling will almost inevitably evolve into something akin to bundles. At the moment, readers can only subscribe to individual Substacks, but it’s not hard to see the company doing a bundle that lets people pay a flat fee for a selection of newsletters. Twitter’s purchase of Revue, another newsletter business, also speaks to this. When combined with Spaces (a Clubhouse-like feature) and Super Follows, it’s clear that monetized subscriptions are the play for the foreseeable future.

According to the Reuters Institute, 20% of Americans pay for news directly via subscription, and a lot do that out of an earnest desire to fund journalism. But, to the point above, a big motivator in the decision to purchase news subscriptions “is the distinctiveness and quality of the content. In both countries [the U.S. and UK], subscribers believe they are getting better information than from free sources.” These subscribers are surely correct, and are almost certainly being exposed to higher-quality news and information.

But, there are a lot of people are being exposed to low-quality news through no fault of their own, and the problem is only going to get worse as information disperses and becomes paywalled at the micro level. I know we often decry “the attention economy” driven by social media, but attention is the only currency some people have to pay for quality news, and I hope we can be a bit more creative on how to expand the news consumer base, not wall it off even further. [Read more on this topic of subscriptions from NYT’s Shira Ovide (@shiraovide), whose On Tech is a worthy newsletter].

- Sree

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Read Something

When people who need financial help get financial help, they live better, healthier lives. A (relatively small) experiment with UBI in Stockton, CA, shows—yet again—how much of a difference $500 per month can make.


Grab a Laptop: Your Table in the Sun Is Almost Ready

By Robert S. Anthony
Each week, veteran tech journalist Robert S. Anthony shares a tech tip you don’t want to miss. Follow him @newyorkbob.

It may not feel like it in much of the country, but spring is on the way and with it returns the opportunity not to escape work or skip school, but to take work into the great outdoors.

As the pandemic hopefully continues to abate, the ability to escape from home and safely work in a park or other outdoor public space with a laptop will increase—but not so much that you’ll be able to throw all caution to the wind. Many public outdoor spaces offer chairs and tables as well as their own free Wi-Fi networks. New York’s Bryant Park, located near Times Square, adds another convenience: outdoor power outlets.

Pandemic-era cautions remain in effect, however. Mask up where necessary, bring hand sanitizer and wipe down tables and chairs with disinfecting wipes before using them. Newspapers serve well as disposable tablecloths and magazines can be used as mousepads.

Unfortunately, many free public Wi-Fi networks aren’t fast. Don’t be surprised to see megabit-per-second (mbps) connection rates in the single digits—far too slow for videos or videoconferencing. Notable exceptions include Wi-Fi hotspots like the LinkNYC kiosks in New York City, where connections above 100 mbps are common if you’re close enough.

If you find a connection fast enough for videoconferencing, keep an eye on the sun. If it gets behind you, your colleagues won’t see you. A shaded area works better. Portable lights like the Lume Cube Panel Mini can improve things, but can also draw unwanted attention to you.

Don’t share private or financial data while on a public Wi-Fi network—period. You can gain some data security by using a virtual private network (VPN), but nothing is hackproof. Hotspot Shield Free VPN offers ample protection for most needs, but at limited connection speeds. For unlimited, ad-free bandwidth you’ll need to upgrade to the $2.99-per-month Premium version.

Bring along extra power. The $90 Mophie Powerstation Go from Zagg covers all the gadget-charging bases: It has two standard USB-A ports, a Qi-compatible wireless charging pad and a 115-volt AC outlet for devices up to 65 watts. It also has a flashlight and comes with jumper cables for starting a car.

If the weather is questionable make sure you have a waterproof laptop bag or bring along a plastic bag. Laptops aren’t as weather resistant as most smartphones.

Groundhog predictions notwithstanding, spring and summer will arrive soon enough. Hopefully so will what we once called reality.

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#WorthyThreads

For the 12th consecutive month, it’s March. The last year has been a blur, a strangely long, slow, blur—it’s indescribable, really. Time has flown by while standing almost perfectly still. Do you remember the moment the pandemic became real? So many interesting replies in this thread.


Watch Something

To mark the one-year anniversary of the pandemic in the US, my recent Indiaspora Community Conversation was all about the medical, scientific and healthcare response, with an all-star team arranged by MR Rangaswami and team: Sejal Hathi, MD, of Covid Rx; Sulatha Dwarkanath, PhD, of Kaya17; Nilima Ragavan, MD, of Stanford Medicine; Meena Seshamani, MD, PhD, of Medstar Health; Priya Singh of Standford Medicine.


Odds & Ends

🗞  TUNE IN: #NYTReadalong - our guest this week is Ralph Blumenthal, author and decades-long NYT reporter - 8 am ET, live or later.

The Readalong is followed, on Sundays at 11 am-noon ET, by a new medical show I’m co-executive producing with surgeons Sujana Chandrasekhar, M.D. (@DrSujanaENT), and Marina Kurian, M.D. (@MarinaKurian), called She’s On Call (watch live or later).

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